Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Washington's Lobbying Culture, Part IV

With the rise of the K Street Project and the subsequent fall of its chief ringleaders, Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay, I've been on a kick recently about the capital's corrupt lobbying culture. In
Part I we considered what's to come after Abramoff. In Part II, we linked to an illuminating Washington Post account of how former Senator and Defense Secretary Bill Cohen rationalized his quick evolution from public moralist to amoral buckraking superlobbyist. And in Part III we bid adieu to Tom DeLay. The crux of my continuing interest, though, is this: how much is any of this shifting of the chess pieces likely to bring any real changes to the underlying culture of corruption?

This latest installment in the series arises from an
interesting piece I happened to read in an unlikely source, a magazine edited for corporate financial officers. The profile of the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a good reminder of how entrenched these corporate lobbies have become, and how arrogant they continue to be, even in the face of all the plentiful negative attention they've been getting. Tom Donahue seems to be a vote for business as usual.

I remember this guy Donahue from my years reporting about business and government in Washington. He was head of the American Trucking Associations at the time, the chief lobbyist for an industry that was still reeling from its then-recent deregulation, pushed through not by Reagan but by his successor Jimmy Carter, who came to believe that was the only way to curtail the power of the corrupt Teamsters union. Donahue was a bluff, confident guy, who quickly worked his way through his talking points with the media and legislators, barely pausing to consider other points of view. If you wanted someone representing your industry, I suppose, he was the guy for you.

Judging by this piece, he hasn't changed a bit, though he's now responsible for representing the interests of a far larger slice of the U.S. economy. You'd think that in the current environment, a brass-knuckled corporate lobbyist might be reconsidering the tough talk. Forget it. The magazine quotes him as saying "I'm not looking for a barroom brawl...but our adversaries should be forewarned. We're coming at you 10 wide and 6 deep. We play to win." That kind of talk gets him branded a "thug" by some, but then you almost have to admire his honesty. No PRniceties for this guy, just a series of punches to the solar plexus for anyone who disagrees. He openly admits that the Chamber plans to push for rollbacks in the Sarbanes-Oxley law passed by Congress in the wake of the Enron scandals.

One can only hope that in time he will find that, like Abramoff and DeLay before him, hubris and arrogance carries the seeds of its own destruction. An official of Costco (of all places) is quoted as being amazed and offended that a supposedly nonpartisan business lobby would spend so much on partisan elections.
Costco Wholesale Corp. decided several years ago not to join the organization after reviewing its political agenda. 'I was appalled to find the Chamber is funneling millions and millions under a cloak of secrecy to support predominantly Republican candidates,' says chief legal officer and senior vice president Joel Benoliel. 'We are strenuously against involving our company and our shareholders in partisan politics.'


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