Monday, December 22, 2008

How Sausage Got Made

It apparently is all about access, according to an article in today's NY Times, and former staffers of Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska who moved on to cushy jobs on K Street had plenty of it. It was a simple system: work for the Republican Senator for a while, keep him happy, and have him secure you a job with a major lobbying firm.

Until recently, there were few better ways to start a lobbying career than by leaving the office of Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska.

With 40 years of seniority on important Senate committees, Mr. Stevens, a Republican, wielded unrivaled power over industries like fishing, forestry, communications, aviation and the military, steering billions each year to pet Alaskan projects like Eskimo whaling, missile defense and even salmon-based dog treats called Yummy Chummies.

His power made his good will a valuable commodity on K Street, where many lobbying firms are located. During the past five years, just nine lobbyists and firms known primarily for their ties to Mr. Stevens reported over $60 million in lobbyist fees, not including other income for less direct “consulting.” The most recent person to leave his staff to become a lobbyist reported fees of more than $800,000 in just the last 18 months.

While Sen. Stevens was the most notable of easily accessible congress critters, he certainly wasn't the only one, nor is the list just Republican in persuasion. The article suggests that Rep. Charles Rangel (D.-NY) has his own coterie. Mr. Rangel's power, however, has just been diminished somewhat by his replacement as chair of a powerful committee by Rep. Henry Waxman (D.-CA). Still, K Street gets greeted warmly on The Hill, much more warmly than the rest of us, the ones members of Congress were elected to serve.

Yes, the Alaskans benefited from Mr. Stevens' power, but clearly the real beneficiaries were not the citizens, but rather powerful interests within the state. The more honest of the lobbyists frankly admit that:

Others turned to dark humor, lashing out at the voters who cut off the main wellspring of the political pork that Alaskans — and their lobbyists — have enjoyed for so long. “They don’t understand the connection between Ted and the way of life they have come to take for granted,” read one e-mail message circulating among former Stevens staff members on K Street. “For those of us long on the dole, the coming reality will take some getting used to.” [Emphasis added]

Good luck with that.

For the rest of us, the problem remains. Lobbyists are already looking for new friends on the hill and at the White House, and they undoubtedly will find them. Our job is to make it clear to our representatives that lobbyists and their clients don't vote more than once and there are more of us than there are of them. To do that, we all are going to have to be better informed as to has all of that extra access.

Articles like this NY Times one are a good start, but only a start and one that in this case comes after the fact. At this stage of our vaunted free press's history, I don't expect to find anything substantive about those not under indictment or convicted. That means we are going to have to do our own digging. Fortunately, there are sites on the net which do summarize campaign contributions by industry.

And, of course, we still have the old fashioned ways of forcing our way into our representative's consciousness: telephone calls, faxes, emails, even visits to local and DC offices can be effective if done in large enough numbers. Organizations such as Move On and Take Back America regularly send out emailed calls to action. The larger bloggers do likewise. What is required is our informed response.


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