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Friday, July 31, 2009 Influence in Washington We’ve all heard the rally cry to get the lobbyists out

of politics. But most of us believe that lobbyists are only people who peddle influence, sneak money to politicians, and conduct backroom deals for the benefit of their corporate sponsors. In short, we mostly feel lobbyists are corrupt and are further corrupting the system. Well, yes and no. The Constitution allows for lobbyists – so called because they used to sit in the lobby of Congress and speak to members on the way in and out. What the Founding Fathers never planned for was the money and influence some of these lobbyists have come to represent. Universities, little townships, unions, States, commercial enterprises, and even foreign governments are represented by mouthpieces in Washington. Their job is, mostly, to make sure the issues close to their interests (and gain) and the understanding of those issues remains foremost in the legislator’s mind. Do they want to sway votes? Sure. But then so has this paper sometimes. Is the paper a lobbyist? No, but it does take a position sometimes and does hope that our Congressmen and women pay attention. The difference is, the paper is not down there in Washington controlling money. The paper does not peddle funds and insider information as a means of backing up its opinion. The paper has influence, the paper can sway public opinion but it acts in the open, its opinions on public display. Lobbyists act behind the scenes, coordinating funds, supplying information and negotiating deals – and that’s why they have to be registered and open to scrutiny. Sometimes that public scrutiny works (think Abramoff and the Indian Tribes with McCain). Mostly it does not. However, there is another loophole in the system of influence peddling. Our elected officials have a staff, the size of which is based on their responsibilities (what committees they sit on) and their seniority. House Minority Leader John Boehner, a Republican from southwest Ohio, has a staff salary exceeding $500,000 per yeari and that does not include the interns and “volunteer staff” said to exceed another 20 or more people (remember, each one needs a phone, a desk, office space, etc.). He’s not an exception to the rule, all similarly important Senators have staffs and expenses of this size. What is missing in the measurement of influence peddling is that half of the so-called volunteer staff on Capitol Hill are way over the age of student interns. Some of these are civic-minded employees, some are filling a résumé for a better job and some are a cuckoo in the nest, they are birds of a different feather with agendas and affiliations unknown to the public.

However, Congressmen like Boehner run a small enterprise and they need the staff and equipment to carry out the job. Why? Because, for one thing, there is all that time spent in front of cameras and being interviewed. Then there are the hours spent listening to their colleagues in the House as they make speeches and, of course, voting. Then there are the hours spent in negotiations, on committees, in GOP strategy meetings, and – ever present – fund raising to get re-elected every 2 years. So is it any surprise that they need more and more staff? Is it any surprise that they reach out, like a man drowning, and take the gaff hook being offered by the lobbyists… at least they will have an answer when asked if smoking can kill, the lobbyists have given them a document to refer to and it is signed by doctors that say smoking is safe! And then, finally, beyond all those obvious shenanigans there are the so-called free-market think tanks whose job is, simply, to carry out supposed free and fair minded research and supply Congressmen and women with talking points and “expert advice” when they need it. The largest of these is the Heritage Foundation with a staff budget of about $25 million. They are upfront about their position, just a little to the right of Rush Limbaugh. Their president Edwin J. Feulner wrote: "Too many conservatives lose hope, they doubt that the liberal welfare state,” he means Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the Dept. of Education, not the Dept. of Defense, NASA, nor the CIA), “Can be brought to collapse.... In short, they doubt that The Heritage Foundation's Vision for America can be achieved!" If you go to one of their meetings (you need to register as a right-wing organization to attend), you will rub shoulders with the Jesse Helms Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Atlas Foundation (based on the books of Ayn Rand), the Society for the Economic Study of Religion (which has determined that Pentecostalism is the best religion for a free market, and so sends missionaries to Africa), and so on. America to be lobby and influence free? Not in my lifetime. Good luck to any President.