Sunday, March 2, 2008

Dedicated to Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The ritual laments over presidential campaign contribution are in full swing, their impotence all too obvious. “Avarice and special pleading” prevail, moralizes the New York Times in a February 25 editorial, and then adds: “We sincerely hope that things improve before the general election onslaught.” Tea and sympathy.

Some campaign dollars come from the tiny bank accounts of apartment dwellers and row house owners. Many come from the fat accounts of those more fortunate. Members of these two groups can only watch with discomfort the occasional news about mysterious entities called interest groups and their ways of contributing to presidential campaigns and to the bills passed by Congress.

On November 7, 2007, Houston Chronicle columnist Loren Steffy wrote about losses several mammoth financial groups had taken in recent months. Among them was Citigroup, formerly a picture-perfect model of American financial success. Over a decade, a small entrepreneur Sanford Weill acquired some 100 companies including the Travelers insurance group, and then in 1998 his financial empire offered $36.4 billion to buy Citibank. There was only one obstacle: a U.S. law prohibiting insurers from owning banks.

Here the story gets hot. During the “grace period,” says Steffy, Weill convinced Congress to change the law.

You read it right. Our entrepreneur was not lobbying his town’s legislature to affect change in zoning laws or to allow prayer in local schools. He was not responding to the charms of the Golden Boy or the Vietnam Hero. He went to the United States Congress elected to represent 300 million Americans. Indirectly, he changed the law that affects all of us, and not necessarily to our advantage. And we did not know anything about it.

That lobbying involves big money everyone knows. But how do people travel to this clandestine Lobbying Archipelago? From the standpoint of ordinary citizens who occasionally donate $100 to their favorite congressman or woman, this is mind-boggling business. Undoubtedly hour by hour planes fly there, ships steer their courses there, and limousines sail to it-but with nary a mark on them to tell of their destination. At ticket windows or at travel bureaus the employees would be astounded if you or me were to ask for a ticket to go there. They know nothing and they’ve never heard of the Lobby Archipelago as a whole or of any one of its many islands.

Thousands of islands of the spellbound Archipelago are scattered from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Its islands are invisible, but they exist. Those dedicated to the maintenance of this Archipelago have substance, weight, and volume, and have to be transported from island to island invisibly and uninterruptedly. And by what means are they transported? On what? The transportation system was created over dozens of years -not hastily. Well fed and unhurried people created it.

Those who travel around the Archipelago to change laws or enact nationwide legislature do not share the route information with ordinary citizens. And those who, owing to ministrations of these powerful travelers, are affected by the new laws, do not know that they foot these travel bills.

There are 435 congressmen and women, and a hundred senators. Each must be lobbied separately and discreetly: inviting a bunch of them to a caviar and champagne party is for the rookies. Their aides must be lobbied. Great ports must exist in the Archipelago to bring the lobbyists in, and land transportation system must be likewise solid and uninterrupted.

And invisible. It blends with ordinary traffic and submits to the same traffic signals. But it goes to places we ordinary citizens do not see, for conversations we have never tried to imagine. And all this is happening right next to us, we can almost see the islands and touch the lobbyists, yet they are invisible. If you spread out on a large table the map of the United States, and indicate with a fat black dot all major cities, you will probably come close to the majestic map of the ports of the Lobby Archipelago. This is the closest we can get to those mysterious people who, we naively imagine, start their conversations with “Hey, brother, can you spare a billion?”

We know how the other Archipelago ended: not with a bang but a whimper. This one is sturdier, and it remains invisible. Its islands cannot be wiped out by an administrative fiat. It cannot be legislated away.

But surely there is always a way. Perhaps consciousness-raising is the proper start. Perhaps courses on lobbying and its evils should be introduced at colleges. But is it possible to invoke the word “evil” in places such as colleges and universities that supposedly teach us how to choose rather than how to behave in life?

On February 26 Houston Chronicle, my home paper, carried a cartoon showing Congress and Lobbies walking side by side. The caption said: “I don’t think our relationship is improper… You and I are married to each other.” New York Times “sincerely hopes” that lobbying can be mitigated if Congress updates campaign subsidies. Problem is, presidential campaigns are only a fraction of the Lobby Archipelago. “Sincerely hoping” that the Archipelago would fade away is equal to saying that one consents to its existence.


Ewa Thompson is Research Professor of Slavic Studies at Rice University.

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