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I used to think I was a lobbyist. I registered as a lobbyist. I identified myself as a lobbyist. I pled guilty to crimes relating to my lobbying activities. I went to prison as a lobbyist. And I have been speaking out against the system I played so well … as a former lobbyist. But, was I actually a lobbyist?
When I first heard Newt Gingrich deny he was a lobbyist, I did a double take. He was hired by Freddie Mac, PhRMA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and bunches of corporations to provide strategic advice for their public-policy efforts – which is Washington-speak for lobbying. According to members of Congress, Newt visited them to discuss these public-policy efforts on behalf of his clients. He reportedly even addressed the House Republican caucus, exhorting them to support health-care legislation favored by his paying clients. Yet, the former speaker of the House claimed he isn’t a lobbyist. Worse, he’s not the only former legislator parsing like a Clinton in our nation’s capital.
Tom Daschle, former majority leader of the Senate and now a titan on K Street, is also not a lobbyist. Neither is Chris Dodd, new head of the Motion Picture Association of America. Nor former Sen. Byron Dorgan, happily ensconced at a major K Street firm. It seems that hardly any former member of the Senate or House of Representatives leaves Congress these days to become a lobbyist. They become strategic advisers.
What is a strategic adviser? Apparently it is someone who is not a lobbyist. Strategic advisers design lobbying campaigns. They direct other lobbyists in their lobbying. They advise clients in how, when, where and who to lobby. In fact, they can even lobby, just not too often.
He raked in millions as a lobbyist in D.C., then served time behind bars — don’t miss Jack Abramoff’s eye-opening autobiography, “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist”
The official definition of a lobbyist is provided by the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which is available on Congress’s official website. There we learn that a lobbyist is “any individual who is either employed or retained by a client for financial or other compensation, whose services include more than one lobbying contact, and whose lobbying activities constitute 20 percent or more of his or her services’ time on behalf of that client during any three-month period.”
The most important word in that definition is “and.” You see, unless you spend more than 20 percent of your time working for a client on lobbying, you are not a lobbyist. Just so we’re clear, if you draw a high six-figure salary from one of K Street’s most prestigious lobbying firms and you happen to work for a client 10 hours a week, but only spend less than two of those hours actually lobbying, or preparing the lobbying effort, you’re not a lobbyist! You might be a strategic adviser. You might be a history professor. But you need not register with the Congress under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, since you’re not a lobbyist.
This hair-splitting sophistry might be the cause of clinking wine glasses at the Capital Grille or other Washington lobbyist, er, strategic adviser fine dining establishments, but it’s not fooling those supposed stooges in flyover land. The American people can smell a lobbyist a mile away, and, folks – you guys are lobbyists. Because if you’re not, neither was I.
I spent most of my time at my lobbying firms advising clients on a host of matters, some of which involved their political and lobbying endeavors. I rarely visited the Congress, and infrequently met with its members and staff. Even when I did, it was usually on the golf course or in one of my restaurants. The conversations with these legislators were rarely about specific legislative issues. Mostly we talked politics. And fundraising, as in their fund raising. Oh, and where I might send them on a vacation. Or how I might help their wife land a consulting contract. Or whether I might have tickets to the upcoming Rolling Stones concert. Rarely did we chat about client issues, because it was almost unnecessary. For the most part, these Congressfolk learned what we wanted from my staff meeting with their staff. They came to agree with our clients’ positions, and they wanted to help their friend Jack, who they somehow thought was a lobbyist. But, if we go by the Lobbying Disclosure Act definition, maybe I wasn’t. And that’s the problem.
If Jack Abramoff might have legally avoided registering as a lobbyist, is it really difficult to see how Newt Gingrich dodges the label?
For the past few months, I have been trying to push an aggressive reform campaign to rid my former stomping grounds of corruption. I have focused my efforts on closing the revolving door between public service and cashing in for the big bucks. I have spent hours wrestling with how to get special-interest money out of our political system. I have pushed hard for term limits and the notion that Congress should not pass any legislation that does not apply to them as well.
But, in my zeal to be a reformer, I stopped thinking like a lobbyist. Had I put back on my old black hat, I would have seen that the battle against K Street corruption was lost when the word lobbyist was defined in the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Is it possible to reform an industry if the main players can legally deny they are even part of it?
You can’t avoid a traffic ticket by claiming your vehicle is not a car, merely because you failed to register it. So how could it be that it’s acceptable to lobby and deny you are a lobbyist, just because of a specious definition probably written by – you guessed it – some lobbyist!?