- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2008


Last week, two contradictory acts played out in the drama we call special-interest politics in Washington. The first represented cooperation and a triumph over polarization when President Bush signed the economic stimulus bill — a measure many Americans understood as linked to their future prosperity. The second signaled strife and interest-group power, as cavalier House Democrats left town without passing an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) — an obscure policy that sets the ground rules for law enforcement’s monitoring of electronic terrorist communications.

The diverging tactics provide insights into how special-interest power trumps bipartisanship in Washington today. First, cooperation is still possible, but it requires just the right conditions and is the exception rather than the rule. Second, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, the Democratic majority in Congress panders to its outside allies like labor, trial lawyers and environmental groups, particularly on policies not widely understood or monitored by typical Americans.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues argued business influence was too prevalent during the years of Republican control and promised to exterminate it. But when they won the majority in 2006, Democrats did not reduce special-interest influence; they only exchanged one set of groups for another. And the new liberal power brokers dictate the legislative agenda with a single-minded resolve that corporations never enjoyed. Ironically, while Democrats promised to end the “culture of corruption,” they created the most interest-group-dominated Congress in modern history.

The stimulus bill offers an example of how Washington can still occasionally work. Mrs. Pelosi and House Republican Leader John Boehner negotiated in good faith, with each side giving a little. The speaker fought back those who wanted more Washington spending, while Mr. Boehner backed down his own allies who sought to inject the issue of making the 2001 and 2003 White House tax cuts permanent. The Senate did its best to scuttle the deal by trying to add a host of additional legislative items, but in the end, the carefully balanced House compromise prevailed.

Democrats, however, cooperated with Republicans because the public understood the costs of inaction on economic stimulus. It was too public to fail. Unlike with more obscure policy debates — which become hotbeds of special-interest influence — when it came to stimulating the economy, most Americans grasped the consequences of legislative stalemate. But like a clean day for an addict, it was a temporary aberration.

The collapse of comity over FISA better illustrates the true state of affairs and how interest-group power swells when most Americans don’t understand the nuances of obscure policies such as terrorist surveillance. As one long-time Washington lobbyist told me, “Very few pieces of legislation move under the Democratic majority that do not include some benefit for one of three groups tucked away in major pieces of legislation: labor, trial lawyers or environmentalists.” When it came to FISA, it was the trial lawyers’ turn to extract a pound of flesh. They want to sue telecommunications companies for cooperating with the Bush administration in its efforts to hunt down terrorists. And Democrats seem more interested in fighting the White House and aiding their interest group allies than apprehending the bad guys.

The FISA fiasco underscores the power interest groups possess when it comes to the Democratic majority’s legislative tactics. Unlike the stimulus bill — which was widely understood by average Americans — the FISA bill had received less public attention, with few voters grasping all the security implications of inaction. The House Democrats bailed out their trial-lawyer cronies by delaying the FISA bill and few voters grasp all the security implications of inaction. The combination of trial-lawyer demands and low public information meant the House Democrats bailed out their trial-lawyer cronies by leaving town last week and allowing the law to expire. Mrs. Pelosi could have scheduled the Senate compromise measure, which included an immunity provision for the telecommunications companies, but instead she bowed to interest-group demands because most citizens didn’t connect the dots of what was happening.

Democrats campaigned in 2006 on a platform of ending special-interest influence in Washington — a political promise that captured the imagination and support of many American swing voters. But the new congressional sheriffs installed their own interest-group deputies, allies that in this real-life drama surrounding FISA are working to make America less safe — even if we don’t know it yet.

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