Sean Neary, spokesman for Baucus, does an able job defending his boss, offering examples of times when ex-Baucus aides lobbied for tax changes that Baucus ultimately rejected. And Neary is right: Baucus doubtlessly ignores endless entreaties from former staffers and current contributors.
But the point of hiring Baucus's former aides isn't that they can seamlessly insert any language they want into the final legislation. It's that they have a direct line to Baucus, and to the people around Baucus, and that gives them a huge advantage. The fact is that human beings are more likely to find arguments convincing when they're coming from friends rather than strangers or enemies.
That's the key to most of the lobbying in Washington. It's not about leveraging bribes so much as it's about leveraging relationships -- and that makes it harder to stamp out. I wrote about this in the New York Review of Books awhile back:
If someone walks up to you with a bag full of money and asks you to vote to make coal companies more profitable, that’s not a very persuasive argument. Even if you take the money, you’re going to feel dirty the next day. And most people don’t like to feel dirty. But if one of your smartest, most persuasive friends, a friend you agree with on almost everything, is explaining to you that those environmentalist nuts are going too far again—they’re always doing that, aren’t they?—and they have sneakily tucked a provision into a bill that would make it more expensive for your constituents to buy electricity, that’s very persuasive. And if it’s also in your self-interest to listen to him—and lobbyists are good at nothing if not making sure it is in a politician’s long-term self-interest to listen to them—then all your incentives are pointing in the same direction. You’ll listen.The outcome of this is a disproportionate number of people who have access to politicians, and who are owed favors by politicians, are lobbyists. And so those politicians are listening to a lot of lobbyists—lobbyists who are being paid by a client to invest in their relationships with politicians in order to advance the client’s interest. On some level, the politicians know that. But it doesn’t feel that way to them. It feels like they’re listening to reasonable arguments by people they like and respect on behalf of interests they’re already sympathetic to. And what’s so wrong with that?The answer, of course, is that players with money are getting a lot more representation than players without money, not in sacks of cash delivered in the middle of the night, but through people a politician listens to and trusts and even likes having lunch with in the bright light of the day. That’s why savvy and well-funded players will contract with a number of different lobbyists at a number of different firms. Every lobbyist will have legislators he’s close to and legislators he isn’t. Some lobbyists, like Abramoff, specialize in conservatives. Others are more connected among liberals. Some firms have the former chief of staff to the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Others can offer the former legislative director to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. If all a client needed was the money, all he would need to do is cut a big check to one lobbyist. But what you need isn’t the money. It’s the relationships. And each lobbyist only has so many of those.Which is why it’s so damn difficult to actually kill off lobbying. Outlawing bribes is easy. Outlawing relationships isn’t.