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Jim Hightower: Pockets of Influence in Washington

Lawmakers resort to less-obvious tactics for stashing special-interest money

What do shoplifters and members of Congress have in common? Tailor-made clothing.

Like a shoplifter’s long coat, the suits of many lawmakers come with an astonishing array of inside pockets that hold surprising volumes of loot. We already know about various conduits that politicians have crafted to funnel cash into their election campaigns, but USA Today recently reported that our congressional stalwarts also have created a series of less-obvious pockets for stashing special-interest influence money.

Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower

The newspaper analyzed 3,000 donations that lobbyists made in 2008 under an obscure category called “honorary expenses.” They are unrestricted contributions that lobbyists make to outside groups in “honor” of top Washington officials. Unsurprisingly, the pockets in which the gifts are tucked are directly connected to the honorees — and usually have been created by them.

Take the “foundation pocket.” Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, has sewn one of these into his suit. His Barton Family Foundation has become a handy place for favor-seeking corporate interests to stash cash and earn Joe’s gratitude. For example, Exelon, the giant nuclear-powered electric company, has deposited $75,000 in the foundation — money it could not legally give directly to Barton’s campaign fund. Did I mention that Joe is the top Republican on the House Energy Committee and that he often carries legislative water for the nuclear industry?

Still, Barton sees no ethical lapse in such smelly transactions, cleverly claiming, “The money doesn’t go to me.” Too clever by half. The Exelon donation came only because the congressman personally wrote to the CEO to solicit it, the check is made out to a foundation bearing the congressman’s very name, and he controls the dispersal of the funds. Indeed, thanks to his corporate donors, Barton’s foundation is able to give highly publicized grants to nonprofit groups in his district, thus scoring major political points for Joe.

Then there’s the “institute pocket” stitched into the garments of a bipartisan collection of lawmakers. One is Ted Kennedy, the Democratic icon who is setting up an Institute for the United States Senate in Boston. It will be named for — guess who? — him. Amgen, the huge drug corporation, was so moved by the civic nature of the institute that it ponied up $5 million to help fund it.

Please be assured, however, that Kennedy’s prominent role in the current legislative fight to rein in drug company gouging had nothing whatsoever to do with the corporation’s decision to donate so generously. As an Amgen spokeswoman said, the $5 million merely reflects the drug maker’s interest in helping “young people to become engaged in public service and public policy.”

Perhaps the institute will offer “The Annual Amgen Lecture Regarding the Ethical Dimensions of Unlimited Corporate Money on U.S. Senate Decisions.” Probably not, though.

Lobbyists love this pocket game, for it lets their prospective clients bypass gift ban rules, earn serious congressional brownie points with little public disclosure, and — get this — deduct the cost from their corporate income taxes, since most of the congressional pockets are set up as nonprofit, “charitable” organizations.

Also, the special interests invariably cite these donations as proof of their public-spirited nature. An example of this assertion of altruism is money that went into a small but influential “portrait pocket” that was sewn into the suit of Rep. Jerry Lewis. This powerful California Republican, a past chairman of the appropriations committee, was given nice ego strokes by lobbyists who paid to have his portrait painted in oil and ceremoniously hung in the committee’s hearing room.

Not that the lobbyists were serving their own interests. No, no — as one donor put it, Lewis’ portrait is a gift to you and me, a philanthropic contribution by the lobbying community “to preserve and enhance the Capitol.”

I can’t find words that would adequately express my gratitude, can you? Meanwhile, if you notice that your own congressional representatives are looking a bit rumpled and lumpy, you might want to check their pockets.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

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