on the Potomac
Turns out $15 billion bail-outs just don’t go as far as they
used to. Witness the airlines’ attempt to fly in under the
radar to Capitol Hill last week—flight cap in hand—pleading
poverty and looking to the American taxpayer to once again
provide the wind beneath their financially tattered wings.
For once they arrived right on schedule (probably took a train).
The airlines are $100 billion in debt, with United and U.S.
Airways already in Chapter 11 and the other major carriers
on the last few pages of Chapter 10. The big airlines have
laid off workers, cut flights and services, and are even rumored
to be on the verge of rescinding every passenger’s inalienable
right to a tiny, unopenable bag of honey-roasted peanuts—but
are still claiming that only government can save them. Quick,
somebody get them JetBlue’s phone number. Let’s hope our elected
officials remember the old saw about not throwing good taxpayer
money after bad. But I wouldn’t count on it—especially if
Sen. Tom Daschle is in a romantic mood. Y’see, the Senate
Minority Leader’s wife Linda is one of the airline industry’s
top lobbyists—two of her clients, Northwest and American Airlines,
raked in a combined $1.1 billion from the post-9/11 bailout.
Whatever portion of that bounty her airline clients kicked
back to Daschle in the form of lobbying fees was money well
spent. The persuasive Mrs. Daschle has proven very effective
at sweet-talking her powerful hubby into helping her high-paying
clients get exactly what they are after—even if it means putting
our lives in danger.
Back in 2000, a company called L-3 Communications had a big
problem that needed fixing: The FAA had given a thumbs down
to the firm’s line of airport baggage scanners, preferring
a more accurate bomb detecting device made by a rival company
(according to one FAA official, L-3’s scanners were “mechanically,
operationally inferior”). A decent, responsible business would
have gone back to the drawing board, accepting the government’s
decision as a subtle hint that it should consider making a
better product—especially given the sacred trust of safeguarding
air travel. Instead, L-3 became the latest in a long line
of federal vendors who preferred to hustle the referees rather
than play by the rules—and turned to happy hustler Linda Daschle
to plead its case.
This “pillow-talk strategy” proved remarkably effective: Soon
after Linda was put on the L-3 payroll, her supportive spouse
helped broker a shady deal in Congress that forced the FAA
to purchase one scanner from L-3 for each one it bought from
InVision, the rival company. Lucky Linda’s lobbying firm,
Baker, Donelson, Bearman & Caldwell, was the recipient
of close to half a million dollars from L-3. The rest of us
are saddled with sub par scanners—and a heightened risk of
being blown out of the sky by undetected explosives. But what
are heightened risks compared to the Daschles’ wedded bliss
and financial stability?
And the Daschles are far from an anomaly. The last few years
have seen a surge in registered lobbyists with blood or marital
ties to our nation’s leaders. Apparently the already too-cozy-for-comfort
relationship between our elected representatives and those
paid handsomely to lobby them—including the multitudes that
regularly segue from public office to the cushy offices of
K Street—just isn’t familiar enough for some clients. To guarantee
success, they want their All Access Passes to include admission
to the bedrooms and kitchen tables of those in power—which
is why a lobbyist’s strongest résumé-builder is not some relevant
degree or work experience, but either sharing DNA or a primary
residence with a Capitol Hill power player.
Among those lobbyists making friends and influencing family
members in our nation’s capital are John Breaux Jr., Scott
Hatch, Key Reid and Joshua Hastert, the sons of senators John
Breaux, Orrin Hatch, Harry Reid and House Speaker Denny Hastert;
Anne Bingaman, Debbie Dingell and Doris Matsui, the wives
of Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Reps. John Dingell and Robert Matsui;
and Phyllis Landrieu, Sen. Mary Landrieu’s aunt.
The silliest symptom of this epidemic of nepotism on the Potomac
has got to be the unlikely rise of Chet Lott, the son of erstwhile
Majority Leader, racial visionary and current chairman of
the Rules Committee, Trent Lott. Before getting into the lobbying
game, Chet worked as a Domino’s pizza franchisee—world renowned
as the perfect training ground for future Washington power
brokers. Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Domino’s. Now instead
of taking orders for extra cheese, he pushes the piping hot
agendas of clients such as BellSouth, munitions maker Day
& Zimmerman, and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
None of whom, I’m sure, hired young Chet because his dad is
an influential U.S. Senator. (Maybe Chet promised that if
couldn’t deliver the legislation they’d ordered in 30 minutes
it would be free—some habits are hard to break). Of course,
Chet and his Dad, like Linda and Tom, vehemently deny any
impropriety. Chet swears he and his father have even agreed
in writing never to discuss his clients. Gee whiz.
Well, maybe it was telepathy or all those years playing catch
together in the backyard or maybe just a father’s intuition—but
something caused Trent Lott to craft a piece of designer legislation
last fall that could benefit, to the tune of $300 million,
Edison Chouest Offshore—a small, untested shipbuilding company
that just so happened to have paid Chet 50 grand in 2002 to
do its bidding. The elder Lott’s kid-friendly provision waived
the 1920 Jones Act, a job-preserving maritime mainstay that
requires that ships employed in coastal trade be made in America.
Now, I’m all for family values—but not when they devalue the
public interest, which these “all in the family” interactions
clearly do. And since I know how hard it is to resist a cherished
child or a doting mate, let’s remove the temptation to put
family first and simply make it illegal for elected officials
to have spouses or children who are lobbyists. Let ’em go
back to slinging pizza. There’s no shame in that.
And I don’t really care which half of the improper pairing—leader
or lobbyist—steps down, just so long as the new sign hanging
over the roadway connecting K Street to Capitol Hill reads:
“Limit One Per Family.”