Get ready. A clash of giants is about to rattle official Washington. On one side are the telephone companies once known as the Baby Bells. Against them are the cable companies, ready to fight to the death.
Each side wants to win an advantage in legislation. The phone companies want a leg up in bringing video services to people's homes and offices -- cable's traditional turf. The cable firms want to make sure they aren't hampered in delivering voice services to the same places, which, of course, is what the phone companies usually do.
Expect the battle to be fiery, expensive and, above all, long. With billions of dollars at stake for both sides, neither will spare any effort to win.
The likelihood of complete victory, however, is slim for either interest. When evenly matched lobbies come to blows, Congress usually ducks. Why would lawmakers pick a victor when no one is clearly in the right? And why would they turn off the spigot of campaign contributions when such deep-pocketed players are so eager and so willing to please?
They wouldn't. And they won't.
The caricature of Washington is that big, rich interest groups get whatever they want. But what happens more often is that big, rich interest groups butt heads with each other and nothing gets done.
The compendium of policy fistfights that have resulted in no result is lengthy. There's the years-long spat between the banks and the Realtors. (Banks want to get into the real estate business and the Realtors don't want them to). Then there's the phone companies' previous dust-up with AT&T and MCI. That decade-spanning conflict never produced a decisive legislative outcome and didn't end until the long-distance companies agreed to be bought out by the former Bells.
Stalemate happens even on issues that everyone agrees requires government intervention, such as asbestos. The courts are clogged with lawsuits from people who were exposed to the disease-causing material. Companies have gone bankrupt because of those suits. Yet thousands of people sickened by asbestos have gotten nothing while others who haven't gotten sick at all have been paid large sums.
The unfairness is obvious. But will Congress act? Probably not.
For years, some of the country's most powerful groups have fought to a standstill over the issue. Trial lawyers and labor unions don't want the victims to be hindered from collecting what's due them. Manufacturers and insurance companies battle over who should pay and how much. And within each of those categories there are conflicts as well.
In other words, something is terribly wrong but no one can find a solution that comforts all of the parties involved.
The problem is what the National Journal's Jonathan Rauch popularized a decade ago as "demosclerosis." Drawing on the groundbreaking work of economist Mancur Olson, Rauch's insightful book -- "Demosclerosis: : The Silent Killer of American Government" -- explained that the federal system regularly got so clogged by interest-group and other pressures that government lacked the suppleness it needed to solve real problems.
Interest groups have clearly gained so much more influence in the intervening years that Rauch's theories are even truer today.
Which isn't to say that the outlook for legislation in tough contests is hopeless. In a miracle of consensus-building recently, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) managed to persuade the Judiciary Committee he chairs to approve a compromise on asbestos. It would set up a trust fund to pay asbestos victims.
But so far at least, few of the parties are entirely happy. When the bill reaches the Senate floor this summer, demosclerosis is sure to rear its ugly head. Senators will have to deal with dozens of narrow-interest amendments designed to alter or kill the plan. The same fate could befall the cable and telephone companies. The House could act on a telecommunications bill before the end of the year, insiders say, but the odds aren't strong that the Senate would go along by then with language that both sides would accept.
In the meantime, both sides are hiring government manipulators of all kinds -- access artists, grass-roots stirrers and advertising gurus, among others. Their efforts will be entertaining if not enlightening, and the show is likely to go on and on and on.
K Street Project Goes Public
Cooperation between lawmakers and lobbyists isn't new or unusual. But the effort by congressional Republicans to persuade -- critics say to coerce -- K Street companies to hire only members of the Grand Old Party has been as controversial as it has been clandestine.
The outrage is still there, of course, but the Internet is pulling back the veil of secrecy on the K Street Project. Last week, Grover Norquist, the very loud mouthpiece for the hire-Republicans effort, sent out a press release to announce the creation of a Web site (www.kstreetproject.com).
The site, open to all, contains news about who was hired in lobby shops, corporate offices and trade associations. It also will carry job postings and a rundown of the political giving patterns of people who are seeking or have taken lobbying jobs.
That's the kind of information that lawmakers such as Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) have been sharing privately for years with colleagues and corporate lobbyists of their choice. Now it's out in the open.
Why? Norquist and Sarah Smith, the young manager who is running the K Street Project for Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, claim that it will attract more people and better information if it's widely available. Norquist was particularly unhappy with the lack of assistance he received from lobbyists in previous attempts to compile campaign-finance data.
Now he hopes that the free market will spread his ambitions further and faster. We'll see.
Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. E-mail him at email@example.com.