On the hustings in an election year, lawmakers go out of their way to say that they represent The People against the Special Interests.
Don't believe them.
Here in Washington, there's hardly a day of the week that Congress's senior lawmakers and staffers don't consult with large groups of corporate lobbyists at regularly scheduled meetings.
Every other Monday, top Democratic lobbyists meet in a Capitol Hill conference room with the Senate's highest-ranking Democratic staffers.
Every other Tuesday, Republican lobbyists from stand-alone lobbying firms meet with Republican senators, also on the Hill.
Every other Wednesday, Republican lobbyists from trade associations meet with a different set of Republican senators.
And every Friday at noon, about 20 Democratic lobbyists meet with the chief of staff of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), at Pelosi's Capitol office.
There must be a meeting on Thursday, too. I just haven't found it yet.
And that's the point. Lobbyists and legislators are in constant contact. They use each other to a fare-thee-well whether The People like it or not.
"It's a two-way street," said David Rudd, who attends the Monday meeting. These days he goes as a staffer -- executive director of the Senate Democrats' campaign committee. Before taking that job in February, he attended as a lobbyist for the Palmetto Group, which represented AT&T, Comcast, Pfizer and United Airlines.
Some people are shocked that such formal gatherings take place at all. And who can blame them? It's disheartening to learn how often elected representatives and emissaries of wealthy interests cooperate behind closed doors.
But that's not the half of it. In interviews with participants, a few other disturbing things become clear. First, none of the participants is ashamed about the meetings. On the contrary, lawmakers and lobbyists alike think there should be more of them, not fewer. The lobbyists, who normally try to keep their activities secret, aren't shy about acknowledging their roles in the meetings. Access to power is a lobbyist's stock-in-trade and those who meet routinely with top lawmakers and their aides have a leg up on their competition. Those lucky and well-connected enough to be invited into those circles are K Street's true insiders, the aristocrats of influence, and their incomes rise accordingly.
But the most surprising fact about these meetings is that lawmakers and their staffers believe they get more out of the meetings than the lobbyists do. Although it's rarely said aloud, legislators rely heavily on lobbyists (many of whom are former congressional and executive branch aides) for information and tactical support. The meetings are vehicles for providing both.
At almost every one of the gatherings, the congressional leaders beg the lobbyists for advice about how to handle their latest legislative problems. They also enlist the lobbyists as mouthpieces for their parties' messages of the day, and ask them to spy on fellow lobbyists for tidbits of news that can give their political party an advantage.
In other words, the legislators, not the lobbyists, do most of the pleading. Far from being reviled as Special Interests, the lobbyists are deputized as comrades-in-arms. Sometimes, of course, the lobbyists have nothing immediately to gain by counseling legislators. But they lend their judgment and legwork in the expectation that lawmakers and their staffs will repay the kindness by being receptive to their clients' desires down the road.
The lawmakers and aides insist that no lobbying is ever done on clients' behalf at the meetings. They also say that fund-raising is strictly forbidden there. And both may well be true. But they miss the point. The narrow-gauged lobbying that really matters to clients -- and that comes later during smaller meetings -- is made easier by the relationships formed in those big meetings. What's more, by unwritten rule, only lobbyists who are Big Givers (either personally or with their clients' money) are ever allowed to participate.
The benefits are tangible for the lawmakers as well. Some of President Bush's most successful legislative drives were orchestrated right in the Republican meetings. Senators used the encounters to encourage and monitor the private lobbying campaigns that promoted their own priorities. Bush's tax cuts, for example, wouldn't have wended their way through Congress without the hard work of the lobbyists in the room.
In return for the lobbyists' assistance, the lawmakers provide detailed updates of the legislative calendar and the outlook for key bills. That sort of intelligence, though rudimentary, is vital to corporations seeking to insert their favorite provisions into law.
Republicans convene the most elaborate and well-established of the tit-for-tat meetings. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) chairs the Tuesday gathering and from that spot has helped orchestrate private-sector lobbying campaigns that have led to passage of President Bush's priorities, including tax cuts. The Santorum meeting, which begins at 8:30 a.m., is where the idea of pressuring lobbying groups to hire more Republicans -- the so-called K Street Project -- originated. The 30 or so lobbyists who regularly attend represent corporate interests that range from Nevada gambling and the mutual fund industry to General Motors and Sears, Roebuck.
Senate Republicans have so many lobbyist allies that they've created at least one other meeting to accommodate them. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) chairs the Wednesday meeting with trade association executives and plays a similar coordinating role with them. The dozen or so participants in the 8:30 a.m. meeting include the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association and the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.
Feeling left out, Senate Democrats started their own clique a year and a half ago. Aides say the idea came from William Andresen, a former chief ofstaff to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and now a lobbyist for the Dutko Group. Andresen e-mailed his former colleagues on the Hill to inquire what was going on. His old friends would dutifully fill him in but decided that more of their colleagues-turned- lobbyists should also be let in on the deal.
"When people leave the Hill and go downtown into a corporate setting, they feel a little disconnected," says Jonathan Jones, chief of staff to Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) and a host of the Monday meeting. "So we started to think about what we could do to reconnect these people. They should be part of our sphere. We should actively solicit their ideas about what we should do."
And thus was born the "Bi-Weekly Lobbyist Meeting" held at 3 p.m. every other Monday at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee headquarters. According to a recent invitation, the gathering's goals are "to help Democrats retake the majority in the Senate, to advance Democratic policy objectives, [and] to strengthen ties to Democrats in the business community."
Six to 10 chiefs of staff of Democratic senators mingle with 30 to 40 lobbyists. Occasionally Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.), who chairs the campaign committee, poke their heads into the room. And Michael Lewan, a former Lieberman chief of staff and now a lobbyist, uses the meeting to direct the Democrats' version of the K Street Project. He circulates a list of lobbying job openings to Hill staffers on the prowl.
Just another happy gathering that takes your breath away.
Jeffrey Birnbaum's e-mail address is email@example.com.