Barack Obama promised the end of the era of lobbying as we know it during the campaign, but the National Marine Manufacturers Association didn’t get the message. Nor did the National Automobile Dealers Association. Nor did anyone else who can make a remotely colorable case for getting any precious drops of the bailout money sloshing around Washington.
Obama has banned lobbyists from contributing to his transition committee. No one can work on the transition on an issue that has been part of his lobbying work in the past year. After the transition, no one can lobby the Obama administration for a year on any issue he worked on during the transition. Transition head John Podesta called it “the strictest, and most far-reaching, ethics rules of any transition team in history.” (Of course he did — such rules are always billed as the “strictest ever.”)
The Obama team thought of everything, except banning failing executives from firing up their corporate jets and heading to Washington to petition for billions of dollars in federal aid. That’s what the CEOs of the Big Three automakers just did. They are only the tip of the spear of a massive lobbying push for an auto bailout that includes auto dealers and suppliers, union officials, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and practically every elected official in Michigan.
And what makes cars so special? The National Marine Manufacturers Association is lobbying for bailout dollars for boat financing companies. Whoever made the car-boat that James Bond used in The World Is Not Enough has to be considering trying to score some bailout money. Ronald Reagan’s famous description of government economic intervention could become quaint: “If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” The updated version is, “Whether it moves or not — bail it out.”
The Paulson plan started the free-for-all. Wave around a money clip stuffed with $700 billion, and you’ll attract attention. According to a New York Times article headlined “Lobbyists Swarm the Treasury for Piece of Bailout Pie,” “the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and other Hispanic business groups met with Mr. Paulson to push for minority contracts in asset management, legal, accounting, mortgage services and maintenance jobs, like plumbing and masonry.”
Billy Graham once said, “I just want to lobby for God.” Interest groups lobby for mammon. So their lobbyists are swarming like hyenas to a kill or, simply, self-interested people contemplating the prospect of free money. Top lobbying firms like Patton Boggs, Akin Gump, and others have new shops devoted to winning bailout funds.
Lobbyists for business exist to gain whatever tax, spending or regulatory favors they can for their clients. The more Washington taxes, spends and regulates, the more work they naturally have. So it doesn’t matter how much Barack Obama abhors lobbying in theory, as long as he favors a bigger, more activist government — with the second $350 billion tranche of Paulson’s funds, a $25 billion auto bailout and $600 billion stimulus bill all on the table — his Washington is going to teem with well-appointed lobbyists.
Obama’s economic program has been grandiosely compared to the New Deal. FDR’s tax and spending programs — unsurprisingly — played political favorites. It is impossible for a government composed of ambitious politicians to wield massive economic powers in an utterly neutral way. “Reporter Thomas Stokes won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative research that exposed the Works Progress Administration for using federal funds to buy votes,” notes historian Burton Folsom, author of the new book New Deal or Raw Deal? “Whatever the good intentions, the funds quickly became politicized.”
Tell it to the lobbyists racking up billable hours right now. Folsom gave a lecture in Washington making this point the other day. A professor at Hillsdale College, he explained to his cab driver when he arrived that he had flown in from Michigan. “Oh, you’re here for the money?” his car driver replied. No, but he might be the only one.
© 2008 by King Features Syndicate