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Jewish World Review Nov. 20, 2000 / 22 Mar-Cheshvan 5761

Don Feder

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Consumer Reports


In age of big government, lobbyists meet a pressing need

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- ACCORDING to the Center for Responsive Politics, $1.42 billion was spent lobbying members of Congress last year. Protection doesn't come cheap.

The total tab for congressional lobbying went up 13 percent in 1998. If the sum was divided equally, it would come out to $2.7 million for each senator and representative -- enough to send all of them back to school for remedial courses in ... everything.

At first blush, $1.42 billion seems like a staggering sum. There are Third World countries with smaller annual GNPs. It's even more than taxpayers are spending for Hillary's travels in the past campaign.

But let's put the matter in perspective with a few more statistics: In the 1995-96 session of Congress (the latest for which a figure is available) legislation-happy politicians filed 6,808 bills, most designed to produce massive migraines for some segments of the population.

The Federal Register, where bureaucratic control freaks publish their edicts, now runs over 69,000 pages.

At the end of 1998, there were 2,188,647 civilian employees of the federal government, most dedicated to driving the rest of us nuts. The estimated federal budget for fiscal year 2000 is $1.76 trillion.

Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, is succinct and on target: "An increase in crime spurs gun ownership and the purchase of attack dogs and alarm systems. An increase in government creates more of a demand for defensive lobbying and PAC contributions."

Despite reformist-furor on the subject, there's good and bad lobbying.

The bad lobbying is a quest for alms. Businesses can be as rapacious as anyone else. Some corporations or industry associations lobby for a wack at the pinata of government subsidies. Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist with the Washington firm of Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, dryly comments, "Money available from government is blood in the water for sharks."

Corporations that can't compete would like government to cripple their competition through the application of anti-trust laws. Others want the feds to front the costs of research and development on new products. Naturally, they will keep the resulting profits.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, lobbies against private-school alternatives and in favor of keeping teachers' hands sunk deep in taxpayers' pockets.

But far and away, most lobbying is self-preservation. "Virtually everything I do is leave-us-alone stuff," Abramoff asserts.

His firm represents Microsoft in its attempts to fend off anti-trust action, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (on which the bureaucrats would like to impose the federal minimum wage) and various Indian tribes, whose non-gambling enterprises Washington seeks to tax.

When the public hears the word lobbyist, an image springs to mind of an oily character in a designer suit, carrying a satchel stuffed with cash. His clients are fleshy felines -- oil tycoons, tobacco companies, the insurance industry, etc.

In reality, lobbyists are as likely to represent the interests of diminutive figures who've banded together for self-defense. The National Association of Realtors has 750,000 members, agents who live in dread of Washington doing something really dumb to the housing market. The National Rifle Association has a roster of 2.8 million sportsmen, collectors and gun-owners who are anxious about Congress closing more of those proverbial loopholes -- further restricting the rights of honest citizens to keep and bear arms.

Washington frequently proves its compassion by looting an industry that it has determined to be unfair to consumers. Thus the latest attempt to reform health maintenance organizations.

The Senate wisely rejected a plan, pushed by the president and other business-bashers, to allow patients who think they've been harmed by the denial of care to sue health maintenance organizations for punitive damages.

That would have been a windfall for trial lawyers (who have one of the largest lobbies in D.C.), to the detriment of everyone in a HMO, who would have seen their premiums rise.

Without a lobby to protect them from this political abuse, HMOs could have gone the way of the nuclear power industry, reformed out of existence.

Lobbyists are wicked indeed. But without them, many of us would be at the mercy of something infinitely worse -- government.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. He is also available as a guest speaker. To comment on this column please click here.


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