by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Forget the stereotype of cigar-smoking fat cats slipping bills to lawmakers in back rooms. Today’s lobbyists are a different—and in many ways more dangerous—breed, argues the author, a Washington, D.C.-based correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Eighty-thousand strong and climbing, the capital’s influence industry—lawyers, accountants, even direct-mail marketers—forms a kind of shadow bureaucracy that, he writes, uses “facts and analyses [as much as] wit and charm” to manipulate the political process for the benefit of corporate interests.
In this readable account, Birnbaum follows several of Washington’s most influential lobbyists during the scandal-ridden 101st Congress in 1989-90 as they scramble to preserve tax breaks and subsidies for their employers at a time when legislators are pressed to do the opposite to cut the deficit. We watch as “black hat” corporations camouflage their interests behind such “white hat” organizations as universities. We go behind the scenes with 142 representatives on a $250,000 weekend—make that “issues conference”—bankrolled by lobbyists at the posh Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., and gape in disbelief as Kenneth Kies lobbies his former boss, Michigan’s Rep. Vander Jagt, to give a single company a tax break at the expense of the country’s nearly 10 million cellular-telephone users.
It’s only one flagrant example of the wheeling and dealing Birnbaum describes in this sometimes incestuous world where, for instance, corporate lobbyist and registered foreign agent Cliff Gibbons represents clients in front of his father, Florida’s Rep. Sam Gibbons, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee’s trade subcommittee.
For all the name naming, this is no diatribe against lobbyists. Rather than banging the drum for reform, or championing specific strategies, Birnbaum lets readers draw their own conclusions. Nonetheless, his evidence of the myriad ways in which well-connected special interests profit at the expense of the public makes a compelling case for change. (Times Books, $25)