“I would pick up the telephone for a supporter before I would pick it up for someone else.” — Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, to the New York Times I have spent most of the past year watching lobbyists at work, talking to them about what they do and how they do it, and observing an assortment of unrelated laws make their torturous ways through Congress. I have done some thinking about what is right with lobbying and what is wrong with it. I have come to no startling conclusions. I still think that, imperfect as the process is, there is no better workable one. Some people would like to change the process; others want to regulate it. Both are difficult if one takes the First Amendment at all seriously. In 1976, Congress considered two similar bills which sought to define lobbyists and require them to register. Neither passed. One defined lobbyists primarily in terms of contacts with lawmakers and their staffs. The other defined lobbyists primarily in terms of money spent on lobbying.
“The fact of our presence — of our bitching — made the difference.” — Robert M. Brandon, Director, Public Citizen Tax Reform Research Group It is an accepted truth that the most heavily-lobbied legislation in Washington is tax legislation. This is because no broad generalities such as banking reform or vertical divestiture in the petroleum industry are involved. Here the benefits are certain and direct. An innocuous-sounding sentence, when inserted into the tax code, can mean thousands of dollars to a scrap metal dealer involved in Panamanian shipping. By contrast, the public interest is generally diffuse and unfocused. Take for example estate and gift taxes. Pressured by an active letter-writing campaign under the auspices of the American Farm Bureau, congressmen voted estate tax breaks for farms and family businesses which were passed on to their owners’ heirs. The congressmen had received innumerable letters from farmers complaining that existing estate taxes would force their heirs to sell the family farm instead of continuing to run it as a farm. These letters had some validity and
(This newsletter consists of three short commentaries on lobbying and lobbyists.) WASHINGTON — By the time this newsletter is distributed, the 1976 Presidential election will be history and everyone will have had a chance to analyze the effect President Ford’s close associations with lobbyists may have had upon its outcome. That such close relationships existed — personal friendships and the acceptance of hospitality and other favors — was never in question. The President himself acknowledged them. They were not illegal but they give the appearance of impropriety, something a public official can ill afford. The President’s actions also raise ethical questions as old as democratic government. Golfing trips and favors from US Steel and other corporations may not have bought the then House Minority Leader’s assistance. Nor do legal campaign contributions. But they do buy something, that elusive component to all legislative or executive activity — access. Access is the opportunity to be heard and to be taken seriously. Access is the ability to speak directly to a legislator or an administrator. It is something
“The family jewels are on the table.” — A Washington representative of one of the Seven Sisters John D. Rockefeller I recognized the importance of having a good public image and hired the world’s first public relations man, Ivy Lee, to spread the word that the unpopular old man was not an unscrupulous businessman but a kindly philanthropist who distributed dimes to the deserving poor. In the half century since Rockefeller first employed Lee, the petroleum industry he helped to create has paid little attention to their founding father’s example. As a small group of multinational corporations which controlled the world’s access to crude oil by a series of secret operating agreements, the petroleum industry did not need to care about public relations, It was too powerful and secrecy was the order of the day. But today, when the producing nations and the independent oil companies have turned the petroleum business upside down and the US Congress, long a bastion of complacency as far as big oil was concerned, is making threatening noises, the
“The core issue may well be, who is running this committee and this Congress. Is it the bankers or is it the public interest?” — Kathleen O’Reilly, Consumers Federation of America WASHINGTON — On May 3, 1976, sweeping banking reform legislation died in the House Banking, Currency and Housing Committee. The most controversial proposals were sent to the Financial Institutions Supervision, Regulation and Insurance Subcommittee for further study, dealing a death blow to banking reform in the 94th Congress. Chairman Henry S. Reuss blamed it all on that “selfish and petulant dinosaur,” the American Bankers Association. The ABA had flatly opposed the legislation, refused to entertain suggestions for improving it, and recruited hundreds of local bankers to tell their congressmen in person or over the telephone how awful the bill was. In the hall outside the committee room, the bankers were jubilant and self-congratulatory. “That’s the way to do it,” said one . “You have my congratulations,” said another. The death throes of the Financial Reform Act of 1976 were brief. This speedy defeat of