Chuck Johnson HORSE SENSE
HELENA - Montana's two U.S. senators are making national news for their cozy relationships with Washington, D.C., lobbyists. The stories aren't flattering.
The Washington Post and Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, last week reported that U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., last year applied pressure to direct a $3 million federal grant intended for poor Indian tribal schools to the Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan, one of the wealthiest in the country. At the time, the tribe was a client of Jack Abramoff, a prominent Republican lobbyist now under investigation by the FBI and other agencies.
Abramoff, his lobbyist associates and his tribal clients have been major sources of Burns campaign funds, giving $137,000 raised by Burns, chairman of the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, in "soft money donations."
The Post reported that Abramoff's lobbying group had close ties with Burns' staff. One Burns' appropriations aide bounced back and forth between jobs on Burns and Abramoff's staffs. Another Burns appropriations aide and chief of staff enjoyed free trips to the Super Bowl in Tampa in 2001 on a corporate jet leased by Abramoff.
Burns' spokesman said the senator had done nothing illegal or improper and invited any scrutiny.
Perhaps. We'll see what the investigations reveal. But does it pass the Montana smell test? Probably not. Is this something the late U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, the pillar of high ethical standards in Montana politics, would have done? Of course not.
Then in late January, CNN reported and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle followed up on how U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., gathered 50 lobbyists at the Teatro Restaurant in Washington. Baucus, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee that oversees taxes, Social Security, health care and trade, told them he wanted each to raise $100,000 for his 2008 campaign for a total of $5 million. Although individuals can't donate more than $4,000 apiece, a lobbyist can hustle up 25 people to give $4,000 each and, voila, he's raised the $100,000 to hand over to Baucus through a legal practice called "bundling."
CNN quoted two lobbyists, without naming them, who said "they've never gotten such an aggressive pitch from a senator." The network quoted Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which advocates overhauling campaign finance laws, saying: "This sounds like a very raw, audacious and inappropriate way to raise money in Washington."
It's all legal, Baucus' spokesman told the Chronicle.
Yes, but does it pass the Montana smell test? Probably not. Is this something Sen. Mansfield would have done? Of course not.
Maybe our U.S. senators, along with their congressional colleagues, ought to be required to trade in their dark blue, pinstriped suits for some new duds. How about some brightly colored NASCAR-style jackets and pants, with patches displaying logos of their "sponsors" sewn on virtually every square inch of space?
Burns could sport patches with the logos of AT&T, whose political action committee and officials ponied up $49,000 in his 2000 race, followed by Lockheed Martin ($39,730), BellSouth Corp. ($36,300) and SBC Communications ($36,250). Baucus could wear the logo patches of American International Group, whose PAC and officials coughed up $36,250 in his 2002 race, followed by Microsoft ($26,250), General Electric ($26,000) and Goldman Sachs ($25,000).
From far away, it's hard not to believe that these lobbyists have more sway with members of Congress than we ordinary citizens do. With their expense accounts, corporate jets and fundraising prowess, these lobbyists are there to serve. We can imagine it works something like this:
"Senator, I know you love the Patriots. Would you and some of your aides like to go to the Super Bowl with us? We've got the corporate jet."
"Senator, we've got some extra seats for that new musical at the Kennedy Center. Would you and your wife like to join us? We can have dinner at that great new Italian restaurant first."
"Senator, why don't we go on a golf weekend in Florida to get away from this awful weather?"
"Senator, how would you and your wife like a trip to Arizona in January? You could address our group and enjoy a weekend of sun."
These friendships and business arrangements with lobbyists seem like just the start of a long - or probably short - seduction. Then these lobbying groups raise money for the politicians' next campaigns. They hire the senators' former aides to work for them, and the former aides lobby their former bosses. It's a cozy little circle.
We need a real Mr. Smith or Ms. Smith to go to Washington to clean up this cesspool.
Johnson is chief of the Gazette State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at (800) 525-4920 or (406) 443-4920. His e-mail address is email@example.com.