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The Democrats Ignore the 500-Pound Lobbyist in the Room

In all of the 35 single-spaced pages of the Democratic Party’s platform draft, there is just one mention of lobbying.

One.

Oh, it says some fine uplifting things about voters lacking a proper voice in government, about money and politics and the need to overturn Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo, two of the Supreme Court decisions that unleashed a deluge of dollars into our electoral system.

“Democrats believe we must fight to preserve the essence of the longest standing democracy in the world: a government that represents the American people, not just a handful of powerful and wealthy special interests,” the draft reads. “We will fight for real campaign-finance reform now. Big money is drowning out the voices of everyday Americans, and we must have the necessary tools to fight back and safeguard our electoral and political integrity.”

But the word “lobbying” is only in there once. And that’s in reference to regulating our financial system. “We will crack down on the revolving door between the private sector — particularly Wall Street — and the federal government,” it says in the draft. “… And we will bar financial-service regulators from lobbying their former colleagues for at least two years.”

All fine and dandy, and sure, language may change as the committee meets in Orlando this weekend to approve a final draft that will be sent to the convention later this month. But so far, there’s zero about the billions of dollars spent to lobby Congress, the White House and the other federal regulatory agencies — $3.22 billion last year alone.

Nothing about how lobbyists bundle masses of cash for candidates and bankroll lavish lunches and soirees at the party conventions. Nothing about the thousands employed along K Street to woo politicians and government officials on behalf of their fat-cat clients. Nothing about the trickle down of the lobby industry from DC into our states, counties and municipalities. Just the other day, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that since 2002, lobbyists in Minnesota alone have spent nearly $800 million buying influence: “The amount spent per year has doubled, and the number of new lobbying clients seeking to make themselves heard has tripled.”

Funny kind of democracy where you have to shell out big bucks to get any attention paid, emphasis on the “paid.” It reminds me of my late friend, humorist Henry Morgan, who used to say that the word democracy was derived from the Greek — demos, meaning “people,” and cracy, meaning “crazy.”

But the Democrats’ failure to sound the alarm on lobbying isn’t surprising, really. No one in either of the two party establishments wants to upset the cart that delivers all them golden apples. Besides, as journalist Thomas Frank writes, Washington and the lobbyists that the city nurtures have bonded as “a community – a community of corruption, perhaps, but a community nevertheless: happy, prosperous and joyfully oblivious to the plight of the country once known as the land of the middle class.”

Lobbying remains one of the nation’s “persistently prosperous industries,” Thomas Frank notes, with a “curiously bipartisan nature… After all, for this part of Washington, the only real ideology around is based on money – how much and how quickly you get paid.”

Look on their works, ye Mighty, and despair! Or better yet, take a look at a recent article in Politico, the publication which is to Washington gossip and dealmaking what Variety is to Hollywood gossip and dealmaking.

It’s the sad story of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, an attempt — after the arrest and conviction of superlobbyist Jack Abramoff — to address the revolving door between government and business, that sends former members of Congress and their staffs spinning into the arms of cushy lobbying jobs, too often fostering graft, greed and the gross abuse of money and power.

Instead, and in classic fashion, by the time the bill was signed into law, it had been subverted, twisted into a tangle of compromise and doubletalk that did nothing to solve the problem and may well have made it worse. Isaac Arnsdorf ofPolitico writes, “Not only did the lobbying reform bill fail to slow the revolving door, it created an entire class of professional influencers who operate in the shadows, out of the public eye and unaccountable.”

“Of the 352 people who left Congress alive since the law took effect in January 2008, POLITICO found that almost half (47 percent) have joined the influence industry: 84 as registered lobbyists and 80 others as policy advisers, strategic consultants, trade association chiefs, corporate government relations executives, affiliates of agenda-driven research institutes and leaders of political action committees or pressure groups. Taken as a whole, more former lawmakers are influencing policy and public opinion now than before the reform was enacted: in a six-year period before the law, watchdog group Public Citizen found 43 percent of former lawmakers became lobbyists.”

Further:

“There is less transparency because some former lawmakers don’t need to register because lobbying is just one slice of how special interests shape laws in Washington today… [And] it’s hard to tell the difference between the job descriptions of former members who are registered to lobby and those who aren’t. That’s because the reform law provided weak rules and even weaker enforcement. It added criminal penalties but made them so hard to prosecute they’ve never been tried.”

And it gets worse:

The revolving door is about to enter peak season. Already 42 members of Congress have resigned, lost or announced plans to leave by January, and some are already talking with prospective future employers — all perfectly permissible and confidential, thanks to weaknesses engineered into the post-Abramoff reform law. These members know they can command a premium — $100,000 more than other lobbyists, according to a new study — from an industry that values the access they can provide to the halls of power.”

And you thought Congress never got anything accomplished! And then wondered why plutocrats can still skip through yawning tax loopholes and the military still gets billions for weapons systems it doesn’t need and the health insurance industry gets away with murder and pharmaceutical prices are ruinous, to name but a few of the heinous ways the influence of deep pockets shafts the rest of us.

The crime, of course, is that none of this is a crime but business as usual. And so the draft platform of the Democratic National Committee mentions lobbying but once and the chicanery, gouging and legalized bribery continue unabated — just another perfect day in Washington and these United States. Check, please.

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MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.

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