Pockets of Influence in Washington

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 have also created a
series of less-obvious pockets for stashing special-interest influence

The newspaper analyzed some 3,000 donations that lobbyists made in
2008 under an obscure category called "honorary expenses." These 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 own 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 presently 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 explained, 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.

Lobbyist 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 some 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's portrait is a gift to you and me, a
philanthropic contribution by the lobbying community "to preserve and
enhance the Capitol."

I cannot 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.

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