Belmont Club

All roads lead to Rome

Lobbying is now a boom industry. The New York Times reports that in an era when people find they can do without many things, the one thing they can’t do without is influence in Washington.  In an article entitled “Lobbyists Prosper in Downturn”, the NYT notes that while

they’re furloughing many city workers … cut staffing by about 5 percent .. officials in Tracy, Calif., are trying another way to help make ends meet in these tough economic times: They’ve hired a Washington lobbyist. It’s an idea that seems to be spreading. Senate lobbying records show that dozens of cities and counties signed up with lobbying firms in the first three months of this year. Their goal is to get a greater share of the money flowing out of Washington, from a record federal budget to the $787 billion economic stimulus package.

Since the Federal government is giving away money — never mind that it comes from the community’s own pockets — then there’s nothing for it but to be first in line. The article describes the stampede:

”The idea that they’re going to lower your taxes if we don’t accept any money is a little bit ridiculous,” Brumback said. The city will spend $40,000 for federal lobbying and $25,000 for lobbying at the state level. Expectations for the return on that investment are high. ”If you’re not getting at least 10-to-1, you’ve hired a bad lobbyist,” he said.

One of the open questions over the Roman practice of Bread and Circuses is which was corrupted most: the court of the emperor or the crowds. My guess is that the practice corrupted both sides of the deal. Still, where the band goes so will the crowd. “‘That’s where the money’s coming from right now and we need to get our piece of the pie,’ said Sarah Barr, director of communications for the city. Cities and counties hiring lobbyists tend to spend in the tens of thousands per year, about what they would spend for hiring one employee. For that money they get a team of lobbyists, each of whom serves multiple clients. The team can include lawyers, former congressional aides and even former lawmakers.” For that money they also get sucked into the system and pretty soon it’s an institution which won’t go away.

Obama has the potential to become a truly different kind of President, one whose relationship with the people he serves is colored by the size of the bag of borrowed largess he has at his knees. The inexpressibly sad practice of making people petition for their own money used to be a feature of cheap, tin-pot banana republics. Whether or not this innovation is progress is a subject for debate; that it’s ‘progressive’ is abundantly clear.