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Good lobbyists, good government

LAWRENCE O'DONNELL JR. was a senior Senate staff aide from 1988-1995. He is now executive producer of NBC's "The West Wing."

January 13, 2006|Lawrence O'Donnell Jr.

WHEN I WENT to work in the Senate, I thought most lobbyists were like Jack Abramoff, but I was wrong. In those days, none of them were as bad as Abramoff. Some of them -- many of them -- might have been criminals at heart, but they feared the law too much to break it. That was way, way back when the Democrats had big majorities in the House and Senate -- a lifetime ago, my daughter's lifetime. She's 11.

I was the chief of staff of two Senate committees back then: first, Environment and Public Works, then Finance.

Environment and Public Works was an odd mix of jurisdictions -- basically protecting the environment and building highways, post offices and other federal buildings. If your company poured concrete or was affected by environmental regulations, your lobbyists desperately needed to see me.

Lobbyists for the biggest construction companies in the country tried to talk their way onto my schedule by pretending to be my best buddy. When they asked for "Larry," my call screeners could tell they didn't know me.

When I moved to the Finance Committee in 1993, every lobbyist in town needed to see me because Finance had jurisdiction over virtually all of President Clinton's agenda: taxation, international trade, healthcare, welfare, Social Security. The corridor outside my office in the Dirksen Building was known as "Gucci Gulch" because it was constantly patrolled by lobbyists.

My sleaziest encounter with a lobbyist occurred in my Finance Committee office. One lobbyist, whom I did not know, somehow got 15 minutes on my schedule to describe the unbearable suffering AIG was being forced to endure by some corporate tax provision or other that he wanted to get repealed or amended or some such. I feigned interest, nodded a lot, maybe let a hint of sympathy into my eyes, and said nothing. If he told his masters that I was anything other than noncommittal, he was lying.

The next day one of my assistants rushed into the office. She had just opened an envelope addressed to me, and was shaking as she handed it to me. It was from AIG's lobbyist -- a letter thanking me for the meeting and a check made out to my boss' reelection campaign. I would not even use a sheet of Senate stationery to reply. Instead, I handwrote a harshly worded version of "How dare you?" on the lobbyist's letter and sent it back to him with the check

There are honorable lobbyists. I dealt with them every day. By honorable lobbyists I do not mean just the ones who did pro-bono lobbying for charities.

When a giant corporation such as Kodak sends its high-priced lobbying team in to talk to you about how Fuji is violating international trade laws, you listen -- because Kodak is the last manufacturer of film left in the United States and the biggest employer in Rochester, N.Y. Yes, Kodak's lobbyists are trying to protect corporate profits, but they are also trying to protect American jobs and save Rochester from becoming a ghost town. Only the most zealous Marxist could fail to see the honor in that lobbying campaign.

Good lobbyists tell you something you don't know -- say, why teaching hospitals need more money for doctor training. They tell you what they think you should do about it, how to pay for it and, most important, who opposes it and why. They know their opposition is going to be lobbying you too, so they don't say anything that can be proved wrong in your next meeting.

There aren't enough congressional staffers to keep track of the hundreds of thousands of issues under federal jurisdiction. Good government needs good lobbyists.

In the last 11 years of Republican rule of the House, good lobbyists have lost much of their turf to bad lobbyists and some criminal lobbyists. It's all about the money. Republican congressmen, led by Tom DeLay of Texas, dramatically increased the pressure on lobbyists for campaign contributions for two reasons: The Republicans had a very small majority, and they believed they were only doing what the Democrats had been doing for the 40 years they controlled the House.

But in those 40 years, Democrats never worried about losing the House. They had huge majorities -- 149 seats under Tip O'Neill, 83 seats on the day they lost the majority. Democrats were much less insistent fundraisers than Republicans are now because they were confident -- wrongly -- that they would never lose the House.

Republicans, having seen their own margin slip to as low as eight seats, rightly feel that control of the House is up for grabs every two years. During the 40 years that House Republicans were a powerless group locked out of every governing decision, they understandably got some crazy ideas about what was going on behind the Democrats' closed doors.

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