Lobbyists have long been a fascinating and integral part of Washington politics -- the gentle and not-so-gentle persuaders, the cajolers and pleaders, the money men and women who prowl the corridors of power seeking legislation beneficial to their special interests.
Worthy subjects to dissect, but ABC's Sunday one-hour News Close-Up. "Battleground Washington: The Politics of Pressure," provides only a surface look at lobbyists operating around town and the role money plays in the struggle for legislation.
Charles Walker -- "one of the elite corps" of professional lobbyists whose clients include Ford, General Electric, Alcoa and Bethlehem Steel -- smokes cigars, talks on the car phone, urges members of Congress one-on-one to support passage of a value-added tax (VAT), a form of sales tax widely used in Europe. His clients want it because it would reduce their income taxes and free money for investment, explains narrator Brit Hume.
Walker profusely extols his Texas pal John Connally -- which adds absolutely nothing to the central theme (but tells you where some of Connally's support comes from). And Walker is never shown behind the scenes, maneuvering. He doesn't like the term "hired gun. We're not hired guns in the sense that we'll just shoot any target that people want. We pick our targets."
But there is no follow-through to that comment -- no sense of why or how the targets are picked, what moral (or immoral) decisions are made on lobbying, and we never learn just why Walker is "one of the elite corps."
The infamous Dita Beard does a walk-on that sounds promising: "You had to be where rumors were. You never knew . . . I think I had more sets of ears than most 20 people. I could sit in the dining room and listen to conversation across the room. You just have to be constantly alert to what's going on, what could possibly come up . . . just what the action is."
But this turns into another missed chance for in-depth interviewing. There are no examples of knowing "just what the action is" from Beard -- author of the famous memo that implied the International Telephone and Telegraph Company (ITT) had promised $400,000 to the Republicans in 1972 in exchange for the government's dropping a major lawsuit against the company.
Much of the program studies the growing clout of corporate Political Action Committees (PACs). The program does a good job of stating the obvious -- that business is buying Congress. Since campaign-finance reforms discouraged huge donations from corporations to presidential campaigns, they have turned to Congress. Corporate PAC's spurted from 89 four years ago to more than 800 today -- with their money going to congressional campaigns.
Some of the visual use of information is interesting. Hume effectively unrolls a huge computer printout as a wary Rep. John Duncan stares. It shows all the contributions Duncan got from Political Action Committees -- some $80,000 from 160 of them. Duncan explains his popularity. He is not anti-business and "the business community knows that. I'm not for socialized medicine. I think the medical groups realize that . . . "
And Sen. Rudy Boschwitz is given the same treatment as an interviewer ticks off his PAC money -- from agriculture, oil, contractors, banks, the medical world.
Sen. Russell Long is shown as a powerful chairman of the Finance Committee who looks after oil commany interests as Hume points out that Long's personal income from just his offshore oil inheritance totals more than $30,000 every month . . . There is more oil on shore."
Some in Washington complain, says Hume, that "when it comes to the Senate Finance Committee, the oil industry needs no spokesman. One has been elected -- and he is the chairman." (Long declined to be interviewed.)
A bill that would change such corporate influence by establishing public financing of congressional elections is followed by the camera through the House Administration Committee. We see members of Congress in shirt sleeves haggling over the bill, but again none of the backstage maneuvering comes across. We are not privy to just how several Democratic votes moved over to the other side to soundly defeat the bill. It was a victory for business, Republicans and conservatives, states Hume.
Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail czar, pushed hard to defeat the bill. He and several associates are shown wolfing down a buffet dinner and talking about how to lobby against Salt II. "A kind of Viguerie hit list" of members of Congress to defeat emerges, but the jumble of voices makes it difficult to ascertain just who makes it (with the exception of Senator Edward M. Muskie).
Hume ends with a weak "commentary." The Constitution gives us all the right to petition the government, "which is exactly what lobbyists do," he explains. "So there would seem to be no way to crack down on those who patrol these halls on behalf of this interest or that. But it would seem fair to demand that those lobbyists not have preference over the rest of us because their employers have bankrolled the campaigns of those they seek to influence."
"Fair" to "demand?" Of whom and how?
Perhaps one answer to this less-than-tough program lies in an exchange between Sen. Boschwitz and program producer Phil Lewis.
Television requires money and the special-interest PACs have plenty of that Boschwitz spent "a million-eight' in his campaign. Lewis asks rather moralistically whether it "offends" Boschwitz to have to spend that kind of money to win an election. No, and why should it? replies Boschwitz. "If you all would reduce the rates on your TV stations, we wouldn't have to spend so much."
Innocence pours forth from Lewis: "Oh, is that where the bulk of the money goes to? Television?"
It is not news to anyone but Lewis that media costs are the agony of every campaigner these days. All those PACs contributing to campaigns hardly hurts the TV industry -- a biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you-point left quite unsaid on "The Politics of Pressure."