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Jeffrey Birnbaum: A journalist's take on the lobbying industry
The Washington Diplomat / October 2004

By Larry Luxner

Jeffrey Birnbaum's office isn't on K Street, but maybe it should be. The author of "K Street Confidential" which appears every other Monday in the Washington Post Birnbaum has written about the confluence of business and politics in the nation's capital for the past 22 years.

Birnbaum's hard-hitting columns have taken on everyone from Nextel to the National Rifle Association, and he doesn't play favorites; Democrats and Republicans can expect to be scrutinized with equal vigor by this veteran of the Washington political scene.

"Lobbyists are as much a part of the political process as are Congress and the executive branch," he told the Diplomat."This notion that somehow lobbyists are the enemy or outside the process is a politically convenient fiction. Most of the information that's decision-makers in Washington use to decide issues come from lobbyists."

Birnbaum, interviewed last month during a lunch break in the courtyard of the Post building, said it's very difficult to put a number on the lobbying industry. That's mainly because those officially registered as lobbyists represent only a fraction of the total number of people involved in influencing government.

"Lawyers, accountants, advertising executives, public-relations experts, telemarketers, professors all sorts of professionals are lobbyists, and there are certainly more than 100,000 of them in a multibillion-dollar industry," he said. "It's a major employer and has a big impact on the local economy."

Birnbaum, 47, is an award-winning author, TV commentator and lecturer. A native of Scranton, Pa., he graduated as an English major from the University of Pennsylvania in 1977, and began his career in journalism that same year as an intern in the Philadelphia bureau of the Wall Street Journal. He has since worked for the Miami Herald, Time magazine and Fortune magazine most recently as Fortune's Washington bureau chief and joined the staff of the Washington Post six months ago.

On TV, Birnbaum is a political analyst for Fox News Channel, and is a regular panelist on PBS's Washington Week. He's also the author of four books: "The Money Men," which examines campaign fund-raising; "Showdown at Gucci Gulch," a chronicle of the Tax Reform Act of 1986; "The Lobbyists," published in 1992, and "Madhouse," a look at the turmoil of working at the White House.

Washingtonian magazine recently selected the Bethesda resident and father of three as one of "Washington's 50 best and most influential journalists."

Influence is something Birnbaum knows a lot about, especially when it comes to big business and special-interest groups like the National Rifle Association. Just consider last month's controversial relaxation of the assault-weapons ban.

"The NRA is going after John Kerry in a very serious way, and has been a close ally of President Bush and the Republican leadership. I think that the NRA's positions would likely flourish if the Republicans remain in control of Congress," he said. "The NRA is a perfect example of how one group is so influential that neither party wants to risk angering them too much. There are plenty of Democrats who don't want to cross the NRA for fear they'll lose their seat in Congress."

Another group neither party wants to anger is the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which last month came under allegations that it was passing U.S. military secrets to Israel.

In fact, Fortune magazine consistently ranks both AIPAC and the NRA as among the five most influential lobbying groups in Washington, along with the 35 million-member AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.

Birnbaum says the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) "used to be a very powerful organization," but has lost influence in recent years with the changing demographics of South Florida's Cuban exile population.

"There's a lot of sentiment in Congress to ease sanctions against Cuba, but it's not going to produce any change in rules or laws until President Bush changes his position, which is vigorously against any easing of those sanctions," he explained.

Asked how he gets the ideas for his columns, Birnbaum says readers call or e-mail him suggestions. "I talk to people all day long. Stories come from a variety of venues. I'm not much of a partygoer, but I do go to parties when it's useful to my work."

One of the recurring themes in Birnbaum's stories is the clout large companies have on Capitol Hill. Recent "K Street Confidential" columns have examined General Electric's extensive influence on a pending tax bill, and aggressive lobbying efforts by Nextel to acquire valuable spectrum licenses from the Federal Communications Commission.

In July, Birnbaum published a lengthy feature on how House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, went to bat for Boeing to help the Chicago-based contractor, which is trying to secure a $23.5 billion deal to replace the Air Force's aerial-refueling tankers with 100 new Boeing 767s. He wrote that the $4 million Boeing spent to pay dozens of lobbyists last year made it No. 20 on the list of major companies and interest groups that try to influence Washington decision-makers.

"The largest business organizations in town are acting more favorably than usual towards Republicans and President Bush," Birnbaum told the Diplomat. "It's clear that businesses of all sizes think that their best interests are served by a Republican-controlled Congress."

That kind of cozy relationship between Fortune 500 companies and Congress has come under attack by many people, most notably independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader. But Birnbaum doesn't think Nader himself has much influence.

"The polls don't show much of a groundswell of support for Nader," he said. "It's hard for me to guess how much of a factor [in the November election] he'll be, but if one of the things that Nader says is that both political parties work closely with interest groups and their representatives, then he's right. I don't take sides, but as a matter of fact, that's indisputable."

And not likely to change no matter who wins the election.

"I don't expect there will be any serious legislation to limit lobbyists," said Birnbaum. "Lobbying is protected by the First Amendment, and if Kerry wins, there's some chance of such legislation. Bush hasn't called for any, but in any case, I doubt that lobbying can be restricted much by anyone. Lobbyists are an easy whipping boy, and the revolving door might be allowed to swing less often if Kerry wins, but lobbying has been a growth industry in Washington for as long as I've been here, and it's likely to stay that way."

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