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Nepotism 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 he
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.”

—Arianna Huffington

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