How BellSouth Lobbyists Operate

An article in the Washington Post makes BellSouth the poster child for lobbyist schmoozing in Washington. Worth reading, the story is a peek into the cozy world of lobbying and “friendships” that control the nation’s legislation. Snips from the story:

More than 80 lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides are listed as having accepted entertainment from lobbyists for BellSouth Corp. at levels that appear to exceed congressional gift limits, according to a document produced by the company’s Washington office…

A regional phone company, BellSouth maintains a large permanent lobbying presence in Washington:

BellSouth, a substantial player on K Street with a 32-person office, said in a statement that it was not culpable if lawmakers or their aides accepted more from its lobbyists than the rules allow. Gift regulations “govern the conduct of Members and staff and do not apply to companies such as BellSouth,” it said. Still, the company said, the document was created “to assist our employees’ understanding of congressional gift rules and to increase their awareness of expenditures associated with members and staff that may fall under those rules.

“The document was produced after a draft internal audit prepared in June 2004 warned: “BellSouth D.C. employee expenses related to lobbying activities are not always adequately controlled. Exceeding allowable gift and gratuity limits set forth in federal laws and regulations could lead to unfavorable publicity related to BellSouth D.C.’s lobbying efforts.”

One theme in the story is that this is all pretty much business as usual and that ways of evading the law on lobbyist gifts were well-established. Washington appears to be awash with different conventions on friendship. In our part of the country friends who meet for lunch pay their own tab or trade off. In Washington apparently the “friend” who is a lobbyist almost always pays.

All of this schmoozing has real consequences, of course. Most will be to subtle to see without knowing what was discussed during those lobbyist-paid lunches but some connections are clear even from a distance. Something that goes unvoiced in the story is tht Ensign’s telecom aide has to be a central player in the ongoing rewrite of the telecom laws. Ensign, a member of the Commerce Committee and chair of the subcommittee on Technology, Innovation and Competitiveness, is the author of the “Ensign Bill” which is being offered as a basis for that comprehensive rewrite. That bill while understood from the start as a Bell-favorable bill has recently been altered to remove the Bell’s last remaining objections.

It’s hard not to assume that “tweaking” the Ensign bill was what Ensign’s telecom aide and BellSouth lobbyists were talking about as the gift laws were being broken.

Michael Sullivan, senior adviser to Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) on technology issues, makes many visits with lobbyists for high-tech firms. According to the BellSouth document, he was entertained by the firm’s lobbyists 19 times between March and November for a total tab of $629.

Passage of the Ensign Bill in its present form would have local consequences–eliminating entirely local franchise agreements that provide substantial municipal income and support AOC. No local (or state) control of the city and parish owned rights of way would remain. Currently contracts to use city property include provisions that in effect require cable companies to serve the entire community–not just the most profitable neighborhoods. Those requirements would vanish just as BellSouth proposes to begin offering cable-like services leaving the Bells to cherry-pick the most profitable areas for their “competition.”

It’s pretty discouraging to realize that this cozy, friendly, paid-for, network of lunch buddies is substituting for actually going out and doing the work in the field and in the home districts that would allow legislators and their aides to understand the real needs of their constituents. One response is to say we need more lobbyists, but what we need is more responsible legislators.