Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Protesters should focus on K Street not Wall Street

In its short lifespan, the Occupy Wall Street crowd has already scored big by shifting the public debate from the national budget deficit to the widening gap between the super-rich and the rest of America.

But, while talk radio is buzzing with arguments over Wall Street's excesses, the army of lobbyists that occupies Washington's famous K Street is making sure that big money remains top dog.

In spite of its often unsavory image, lobbying is perfectly legal. Regarded as an extension of free speech, lobbying affords anyone from a minimum-wage earner to Donald Trump the same opportunity to hire lobbyists to represent their interests to Congress.

In the last 12 years, annual lobbying expenditures have more than doubled, from $1.44bn (£899m) in 1998 to $3.51bn (£2.19bn) last year. There are currently more than 12,000 lobbyists beavering away in DC.

In theory, these influence-peddlers use only their powers of persuasion to influence politicians. In reality, money talks the loudest and the lobbyists who pump the most cash into campaign coffers are the ones that get results.

Federal law allows an individual to contribute $2,500 in a calendar year to a presidential candidate. Taking into account all elections - federal, state and county - a person can give just over $46,000 every two years to multiple candidates and about $71,000 to political action committees (PACs) that also support candidates.

The process of 'bundling' donations allows a given donor to appear more influential by gathering together smaller individual contributions before forwarding them to a candidate.

When he was a senator from Illinois, Barack Obama co-sponsored a bill to require presidential candidates to identify any lobbyists who bundle campaign contributions. However, if these lobbyists raise money via fundraising events, or contribute as individuals themselves, they don't have to be identified as lobbyists.

Even Obama, who rode to power on a vow of changing Washington's wicked ways, isn't immune to K Street's power.

Officially, Obama is continuing with his 2008 campaign stance of not accepting contributions from lobbyists, or PACs representing corporations.

However, the President recently got flack for hiring a former corporate lobbyist as a top campaign staffer.

A recent New York Times investigation found that 15 of his top 'bundlers' - who have together pumped $5m into his campaign - are former lobbyists for corporations.

The industries they represented range from telecommunications and software to Wall Street financial concerns and pharmaceutical companies.

And, according to a new report by the Centre for Public Integrity, Obama has given plum jobs to some 200 people who raised money for his re-election campaign and that some of his top fundraisers have won millions of dollars in federal government contracts for themselves and their companies.

Telecommunications executive Donald Gips raised $500,000 by 'bundling' together hundreds of donations. For his efforts, Gips was later named US ambassador to South Africa and his firm - Level 3 Communication - received $13.5m in stimulus money aimed at bolstering America's broadband infrastructure.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has sparked a national debate about the distribution of wealth.

But, with America's political system so awash with influence-seeking cash, in order to get Congress to rewrite the tax code to make the super-rich pay more, an 'Occupy K Street' movement may be needed, as well.

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