Lobbyists Pay and Get Paid

Originally posted at Writeindependent.org on March 30, 2012

The following article is re-“printed” from Time Magazine and written by Steven Brill, first published June of 2010.


The 40 people I saw in that Capitol Hill corridor in mid-June were part of an army of approximately 2,000 monitoring the two-week-long conference committee between Senators and Representatives trying to reconcile their different versions of the bill. In the past, these sessions have been good government’s Bermuda Triangle, a black hole of backroom deals. The lawmakers usually worked out the differences between the bills in secret, often inserting entirely new and undebated provisions provided at the last minute by lobbyists. The full House and Senate would then have to vote up or down on the final result, often without having had time to read, much less consider, those changes.

This time the process was more transparent. Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank and Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, whose committees largely wrote the two bills, agreed to televise their meetings and publish any proposed new language in advance of the conference’s consideration of it. But most of the real action came on the nights and mornings between the televised sessions, when the always witty, often acerbic Frank and his House colleagues would decide what they would offer the Senate in the way of language to reconcile the two bills. The more avuncular Dodd and his Senate colleagues would then frame their responses, with some input from the Republicans because they still needed at least one GOP vote to pass the whole thing. The public part of the meeting consisted mostly of announcements of the two sides’ offers and acceptances, all of which had been hammered out earlier behind closed doors. The exception was on the final day of bargaining, June 24, when committee members and their staffs, lobbyists and reporters spent 20 hours crowded into a large Senate hearing room, where last-minute deals were made on the fly until 5 o’clock the next morning. (See “In Financial Reform, Rules Made to be Broken.”)

The Weapons of Modern Warfare
In the ’80s, when lobbying was a cottage industry com pared with what it is today, so many lobbyists swarmed the corridors like the one outside the conference room that the press dubbed the halls Gucci Gulch in honor of lobbyists’ preferred footwear. Now they usually work more efficiently and less conspicuously: most of the 2,000 lobbyists who registered this year to lobby for the financial industry (that’s almost four for every member of the House and Senate) were on the phone or exchanging e-mails or text messages back at the office. Having downloaded the day’s proposed language changes, they could watch the conference proceedings live and launch surgical strikes.

Just outside the House Financial Services hearing room, two dark-suited, slightly graying men madly BlackBerrying look up and blanch at my press credential as if they’d been caught passing a bag of money to someone. After being promised anonymity, they explain that they’ve been dispatched by their boss, as one puts it, “to grab one of the senior staff on the Republican side and give him an idea about how to reword something in the Volcker rule.”(See if financial reform is inevitable.)

The Volcker rule, named for former Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, who was one of those who first suggested it, would prohibit banks from putting their own money into risky ventures such as private-equity or real estate deals. It’s a restriction that its advocates believe could prevent the next financial implosion. Bankers hate it, but their lobbyists have been unable to fight it off. Instead, they have been chipping away at it — suggesting provisions that would allow some percentage of those funds to go into high-risk deals, delay the rule’s implementation or exempt some big players. (See “Q&A: Obama on His First Year in Office.”)

The two lobbyists I encounter in the hall are working on a narrower Volcker-rule carve-out. They’re representing “some green-energy interests,” one says. What’s that got to do with the Volcker rule? He explains that Washington is encouraging green-energy investments by granting tax credits, but only investment entities like banks that make consistent profits have predictable tax liabilities and therefore can make use of such tax credits. For $20,000 a month, Capitol Tax’s Hooper is pushing to get the same carve-out for the members of the American Wind Energy Association. If he doesn’t, he says, it could slow down billions in investments that the Obama White House has been championing. “Much of what good lobbyists do,” he says, “is work with legislators and staff to avoid unintended consequences of well-intended proposals.”

“Unintended consequences” is a refrain I will hear often when asking lobbyists about their work. But seasoned Hill staffers will tell you that innocent-looking carve-outs sometimes become gaping loopholes
Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2001015,00.html#ixzz1rNKHsozw

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