Lobbyists are the Washington Powers That Really Control the Budget Process

There isn’t much news in saying Democrats and Republicans remain far apart in trying to reach a budget compromise. This is largely because of their fundamental, philosophical economic policy differences over raising revenue or extensive cuts, especially of so-called entitlement programs, including Medicare and Social Security.

One of the dirty little secrets of budget building that truly threatens the ability to come to agreement, however, has less to do with economic philosophy and policy and a lot more to do with lobbying.

Before factoring in sequestration, President Obama already had ordered spending to be slashed by $85 billion this year, divided equally between civilian and military programs. Unlike sequestration, which required an additional 5 percent cut across the board, federal agencies got to determine where to make their cuts.

Obama’s position is that he had already put cuts on the table and that while he isn’t unilaterally opposed to more, they need to be strategic – which isn’t what’s happening with sequestration.

Congress and the White House basically agreed to sequestration, thinking that it would never be implemented because the consequences were so awful that both sides would be able to work something out.  Not only did that not happen, but it is now being imposed on top of cuts already mandated.

Lots of special interest groups were happy to let other organizations take a hit, as long as they themselves had allied lawmakers in Washington who would help to spare them from the fiscal axe.

It has been well documented that the strength of lobbyists in Washington is so deep and intense that it diminishes any attempts to have truly efficient, much less effective, government.

“There’s no shame anymore,” Chuck Hagel, a Republican senator from Nebraska from 1997-2009 and newly confirmed U.S. defense secretary, said in Robert G. Kaiser’s 2009 book,  “So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government.”

“We’ve blown past the ethical standards, we now play on the edge of the legal standards,” Hagel said.

Leon Panetta, a Democratic congressman from California for 18 years, former President Bill Clinton’s director of the Office of Management and Budget and, later, Clinton’s chief of staff, and most recently Obama’s CIA director, in the same book said “legalized bribery” would be a good description of how lobbying works in Washington.

It appears little has changed since Kaiser’s book was written.

The administration cuts already had lobbyists for businesses, industries, universities, advocates for the poor and even foreign governments, worried about their levels of U.S. aid, busy working on federal contacts for help.

The effort just intensified with sequestration. It also led to some creative alliances.

The New York Times reported Thursday that the president of the Association of American Universities joined the chief executive of Northrop Grumman, the maker of military aircraft, in a news conference recently to denounce the sequestration cuts.

Even if Congress and the Obama administration reach a budget agreement, many lobbyists believe the initial round of mandated cuts under sequestration will take effect and won’t be regained. Lobbyists are convinced that they need to stop the cuts from taking effect, if at all possible, and certainly find a way to limit further reductions down the road.

Many congressmen rely on special interest contributions to pay for increasingly expensive re-election campaigns and the price they pay for all that money is access that extends, in some cases, to allowing lobbyists to write the legislation that Congress ends up voting upon.

Ultimately, little gets fixed in Washington. Many people feel it is directly tied to animus aimed at Obama, partly because of his politics, partly because he is black, but in many ways it likely would happen regardless of who is in office.

There were plenty of Republicans opposed to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 because of his fiscal policies or those of his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who has called for stringent cuts, closing loopholes and severely cutting back entitlement programs.

Contrary to what some Republicans may say, the Romney-Ryan team likely would not have fared better a whole lot better – principally because lobbyists often get the last word in policy discussions.

“It has been a game that ill served the United States,” Kaiser wrote in “So Damn Much Money,” “Most obviously, the players have ignored or avoided a great many grave national problems. Hagel put it this way: ‘Health care, immigration reform, environment – you name the big issues today, we have not been able to move on any of them, because of the power of the process, the power of the special interests….’”

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”

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