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Citizens Class: The Land of Lobby

What kind of changes do you think need to happen when it comes to lobbying in America that would help level the playing field for all those interested in being heard by government?

(Transcripts of video clips are at the end of the document.)

Backgrounder: The Land of Lobby
Political folklore has it that the term "lobbying" originated during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, when, brandy in one hand, cigar in the other, the former general would plant himself in the lobby of his favorite hotel and wait for the public to come offering and asking for favors ... [more]

Class Is in Session...

Over the past five years, the number of lobbyists in Washington has doubled to nearly 35,000; the yearly amount spent on lobbying has increased by nearly a billion dollars to $2.3 billion; and today more than 230 former congressmen, now lobbyists, continue walk the halls of the Hill, attempting to influence the way current congressmen vote. Is there too much lobbying going on? What happens to democracy when so much money and effort are poured into selling the agendas of special interests to our elected officials?

"Congress has always had, and always will have, lobbyists and lobbying," says former Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd. "We could not adequately consider our workload without them." But he also stresses the need for vigilance. "The history of this institution demonstrates the need for eternal vigilance to ensure that lobbyists do not abuse their role, that lobbying is carried on publicly with full publicity, and that the interests of all citizens are heard without giving special ear to the best organized and most lavishly funded."

To be clear, not all lobbyists represent big business, not all of them are Abramoff-style operators and not all of them toe the line between legality and criminal corruption. In fact, most lobbyists are respectable folks legitimately conveying the interests of organized groups to those whose actions and votes have an effect on the way we live in America. They may represent churches, universities, charities, senior citizens groups or environmental concerns, or they may represent Enron or the Northern Mariana Islands. Basically, a lobbyist's job is to persuade lawmakers to view an issue in their clients' interest and will urge them to vote in a way that benefits their clients, whether that means more federal research contracts for a college in a congressman's district, more affordable drug prescriptions for the elderly or bigger tax loopholes for corporations.

For years, the reality has been that people must organize in order to have their voices heard in politics. From the very early days of Congress, citizens have joined together in order to lobby with greater efficacy: The representatives of shipwrights lobbied lawmakers on the effects of tariffs; merchants' lobbyists pushed for an end to the tax on molasses; federal clerks requested an increase in pay; military officers sought reimbursement for personal funds expended during the Revolution. In short, individuals with common interests banded together and selected someone to plead their case before Congress, the White House or any other body that had the power to influence the situation. And so lobbying became an efficacious and accepted form of political activity. (Read a history from lobbying from the U.S. Senate.)

Bill Moyers talked with Thomas Frank, author of WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS: HOW CONSERVATIVES WON THE HEART OF AMERICA and Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and long-time Washington observer about the particular problems exhibited by the Abramoff scandal, and the general problems that perplex a political and campaign system that runs on money — a great deal of money. Ornstein is particuarly troubled by the "earmarking" process in which representatives can use a legislative manuever, without great oversight, to steer federal appropraitions monies to pet projects...and possibly to campaign contributors. (You can learn more about earmarks in the "Fixing the System" Citizens Class.) Watch the video

You can find out how much money is being spent to lobby for the things you care about. Take a look here to find out if you are being represented by a lobbyist in Congress. To see how many lobbyists are working in your state legislature, visit Public Integrity. Amazingly, in Washington, there are approximately 65 lobbyists for each member of the House.

By law, all registered lobbyists working on the Hill are required to publicly disclose which issues and bills they have worked on-in recent years, less than half of lobbyists have filed their disclosure forms in a timely manner, if at all. Increased scrutiny by both the public and oversight agencies could help the situation — especially in the age of the Internet. Watchdog groups fault the House for lagging behind the Senate. which maintains a broadly searchable database of electronic images of lobbying forms. [Read the report and find out about additional reform efforts.]

Big Money and Big Problems

There is no doubt: Lobbying is big business and it's growing. And choosing the right lobbyist can be very lucrative. For a relatively small investment in a lobbying campaign, corporations can receive a gargantuan return. THE WASHINGTON POST reported that one lobbying firm, the Carmen Group, calculated that for every $1 million its clients spend on its services, it delivers, on average, $100 million in government benefits.

Lobbyists and their firms contribute heaps of cash to political campaigns, attend or host fundraisers and even act as fundraisers and campaign treasurers themselves. According to the Center for Public Integrity, since 1998, nearly 80 members of Congress have tapped congressional lobbyists to serve as treasurers of their campaign committees and as leaders of their political action committees. Says Common Cause, "lobbyists raise campaign funds because they want to become indispensable to people in power, knowing that the service they perform will be rewarded by the access and influence they gain."

The following figures give a good idea of just how interlocking the worlds of politics and lobbying are:

  • 232 former members of Congress are now registered lobbyists.

  • Nearly 40 members of Congress retain lobbyists as treasurers of their re-election campaigns or political action committees.

  • 12 former registered lobbyists have been hired to work in various offices of the White House, sometimes formulating public policy about the various issues they once lobbied.

  • More than 1,300 registered lobbyists have personally given more than 1.8 million to George Bush over the last six years
The Revolving Door

Another issue of concern is the number of congressional staffers, executive staffers and former members of Congress taking highly lucrative jobs as lobbyists. According to a study by Public Citizen, 43 percent of eligible members of Congress who left office since 1998 have become lobbyists. During that same period, 273 former White House staffers also registered as lobbyists. While some see this as a logical move into a position where they can best apply their skills, it also raises concerns that tenure in Congress is just a stepping-stone toward a highly paid job as a lobbyist. In convincing Rep. Robert W. Ney not to run for re-election, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) reportedly told Ney that if he lost his House seat for the party, he could not expect a lucrative career on K Street-the avenue of the lobbyists.

Even though there is a one-year moratorium on taking a job as a lobbyist, members of Congress and staff often bypass the moratorium by joining lobbying firms as advisors and not registered lobbyists. Common Cause has called for an increase in the moratorium from one year to two years, and to expand the definition of lobbying. The plea agreements of both Congressman Bob Ney and his former Chief of Staff Neil Volz cite violations of the one-year waiting period. [Read the report and the Ney plea agreement (PDF).]

While "Capitol Crimes" looked primarily at the abuses perpetrated by Jack Abramoff, there have been at least half a dozen other politicians and lobbyists tainted by lobbying scandals this year alone. And with the large pot of lobby money, the growing cost of campaigns, the and lawmakers willing to trade favors for funding, it seems likely that-barring a major ethics overhaul-this kind of behavior will continue.


  • You've watched the documentary and read the accompanying materials. Come up with three government or lobbying reform ideas that if they had been instituted before the Abramoff scandal would have prevented it.
  • Take a pro and con position about lobbying: when is it a necessary part of the democratic process, when does it harm the democratic process? Can you envision a healthy democratic system without some form of organized lobbying?
  • What kind of changes do you think need to happen when it comes to lobbying in America that would help level the playing field for all those interested in being heard by government?


NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You've got people on both sides actually, who are stalwarts in trying to stop this process from-- from moving forward. They've been in the minority. A lot of members don't want to get discomfort. They've lived kind of nicely the-- the way that things have been going. You know, I-- I would add, having been in Washington for 37 years, now I see a level of spending and conspicuous consumption that I just didn't see before. The fact is when you've got a three trillion dollar economy, and now you take 30, 40, $50 billion out of that, you know, chump change in a way-- and say to every member of Congress, you've got a few hundred million you can play with. You are the king over a few hundred million dollars.

BILL MOYERS: These are the earmarks?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The earmarks.

BILL MOYERS: Earmark, as I understand it, means that a congressman-- a member of Congress can direct that money be given, sent directly to a project without going through a public agency.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And without going through any kind of vetting or cost benefit analysis, in effect. And it's done through appropriations. It's done through authorizations. It's done through academic earmarking, getting money going to a particular university. It's also-- it's surreptitiously steering contracts, like defense contracts. That's what Randy "Duke" Cunningham did in return for $2.4 million in bribes.



NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There are some reforms that would make a difference. Primarily, in this case, we need an Ethics Committee and an ethics process that has some outside involvement to-- have--

BILL MOYERS: So it's not members in Congress running.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: --not just members of Congress. The Constitution says they make the ultimate decision. But you've got to have some better vetting process. There are states like Florida and Kentucky that manage to do this reasonably effectively. We've got to change this earmarking process and bring some honesty to it. And we're far from being able to do that. And we've got to have--

BILL MOYERS: In other words, you could publicize who is sponsoring the earmark so that I would know Norman Ornstein has sent an earmark over to a campaign contribution.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And so that you can look into the behavior of individual members and staffers-- which may be related to those earmarks. And--

BILL MOYERS: But if reform has to come from the people who have benefited from the system, are we going to get reform?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: We're going to get reform if and when they believe that the public will have the tar-- cooking and the feathers waiting if they don't do reform. We're not there yet, Bill.

THOMAS FRANK: Can I say two things about this question? First of all, the-- the people who are in charge now have a vested interest in increasing our cynicism. They are the party of cynicism against government.

And when they do these things, that's just an added benefit that they-- that they've managed to get the cynicism numbers up where they have, that's good for the Republican Party, the party that tells you that what? Remember what President Reagan used to say about government, you know? It was a joke, the idea that they were here to help you, all that stuff.

The second point I want to make is go back to the 19th century, the sort of parallel experience to what we're going through now. You had a series of reformers come up in the 19th century. And every single one of them from, you know, Horace Greeley all up to the 1890s failed miserably, you know, were rejected in huge sweep-- I mean, the corruptionists just whipped these guys.

It was a piece of cake. It was easy. The only thing that-- what really changed it is when reform became a broader thing, when it became-- progressivism. And when it became-- you know, look at society as a whole. We're going to change the-- the entire direction that we're moving in. When, I'm talking about here people like Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. That's when this stuff started to abate. Not-- not before that.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You know, one problem we have here is what we really need is politicians. Politicians understand the nature of politics and the importance of the institutions. How to do give and take and compromises in an effective fashion. What's happening now is where this flame of cynicism in the public, somebody pops up and says, "I'm not a politician."

And we say, "Okay, great. We'll elect you." And what we get are people who are on an ideological crusade, people who have a contempt for politics and believe that it is all sleaze, everybody does it. So bribery is a way of life.


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