Picks and Pans Review: Talking With...
THE FINE ART OF NIBBLING THE FRINGES
AFTER TWO YEARS OF TRAILING SOME of Washington's top lobbyists, says Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, "I was most surprised that lawmakers don't realize the huge amount of effort and manipulation that goes into even the most casual contacts lobbyists have with them. They don't realize that this amounts to a multi-billion dollar industry just to influence them." But the Silver Spring, Md., resident says he can empathize with lawmakers: Sometimes he finds lobbyist friends trying to twist his arm—and his perspective on issues. "Lobbyists are the people who live here," he observes. "They are a permanent and a pervasive force in Washington."
Lobbyists are "immensely influential, but not in the way people suspect," Birnbaum says. "They get their way on the lucrative fringes: small changes in big bills that mean big dollars to their clients" (extending a tax break by a few months, for instance, or changing a rate of depreciation slightly). And whenever special interests "win a piece of the pie for themselves," he adds, "they take it away from the rest of us."
But according to Birnbaum, who covered the Clinton-Gore campaign for The Wall Street Journal, the new Administration is proposing reforms, including caps on campaign spending and the amounts that special interests can funnel to candidates, as well as stricter disclosure laws. This could result in "a lot less cash and a little more sunshine," he says. Even so, Birnbaum believes Clinton's arrival "is a boon to lobbying. Whenever there's change, lobbyists do well."