When lobbying is not a dirty word

Lobbying in America is a study in status crazed connections. Yet, if denuded of its three- piece-business-suit respectability, lobbying, soliciting and hustling happen to be clones of the oldest profession in the world. But in the American system, lobbyists command deference if not awe. And for their schmoozefests, they are paid what they demand. Why? Because they have the reach and the ear of the powers that be and can wangle the knottiest of deals spawned from Capitol Hill to the White House.

Why then do wealthy countries spike poverty-stricken states like Pakistan on corruption, cronyism and nepotism? Joining in the witch-hunt is the World Bank and the IMF, whose humiliating conditionalities have for decades betrayed a bias against the developing states. The United Nations annual Human Development Report mirrors the same rhetoric in its development index but never chastises scofflaws like America who allows millions to be plundered daily by lobbyists.

In the dog-eat-dog world on Capitol Hill, poor countries like Pakistan have always paid hefty to hire American lobbyists as its watchdogs. The funny part being the selection of these colorful characters who have attracted media attention for erring on the wrong side of grandiosity.

Benazir Bhutto hired her close friend Mark Siegel to lobby for her government when she was prime minister. After her dismissal, Siegel turned ballistic and squealed on Rep. Dan Burton, India’s bete noire in Congress, that he had allegedly solicited him for $5,000 for his campaign donations and threatened to make sure that Pakistani-Americans prevailed upon the ambassador at the time to terminate his $360,000-a-year lobbying contract.

In 1997, an apoplectic Washington Post printed a leaked memo by Bhutto’s aide to Siegel, exculpating Burton “we were distressed to know from the embassy that Congressman Dan Burton says that you were unable to keep certain promises regarding fundraising for his reelection campaign and that you were also very unhelpful in other matters. So much so that you are no longer `persona grata’ in his office. This is most upsetting as he is good friend of Pakistan.”

Siegel retaliated with his heaviest salvo leaked to Washington Post: “I should tell you that I worked in Washington for over 25 years and have never been shaken down by anyone before like Dan Burton’s threats. No one has ever dared to threaten me into contributing money, and no one has ever followed through on such threats by contacting one of my clients. Despite what you may see in the movies, this isn’t the way most U.S. politicians conduct themselves.”

This was not the end of Pakistan washing its dirty linen on Capitol Hill. When Nawaz Sharif came to power, he hired Denis Neil as his lobbyist and paid him $360,000 annually. When the Siegel-Burton brouhaha broke, so did the news of Neil being arrested, sentenced and jailed on tax fraud hit the headlines. Pakistan’s lobbyists had squirted enough claptrap for the media’s robust appetite.

On hindsight, both our former prime ministers were gulled into making wrong choices. Siegel – paid $452,941 by Islamabad for his services in end July 1995 – whose joust with Dan Burton, a longtime friend of Pakistan could have ended in a disaster. Burton regularly backed causes of importance to Pakistan, particularly help remove the long-standing ban on aid that cleared the way for delivery of $368 million worth of U.S. missiles and other military equipment for which it already had paid.

Enter President Musharraf. He has hired Gary Polland, the head of the well-connected Houston-based Republican firm, Polland & Cook, “to help smooth ties with the US, to end US economic sanctions against Pakistan and bolster trade and debt restructure”.

“Team Barakat” is the name given to this venture. And TB’s job description? To clear tangled issues facing the client (Pakistan), like nuclear testing, Afghan refugees, Kashmir dispute with India, terrorism, human rights, economic debt restructure, child labor and Pakistan’s transition to a civilian government.

TB’s $180,000 contract became effective on Sept. 1. 2001. It is renewable for another two years. It covers only “advice, recommendations, and meetings with key US policymakers. Media services are not covered. The firm reports to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.”

Polland too is a colorful character with ceiling-high political ambitions. He wants to be the senator for Bush’s home state Texas. But sadly for Pakistan, Polland lost in the primaries and is now back sweating with “Team Barakat” to make sure that Musharraf – who is in the US – at least gets a presidential cheerleading.

Lobbying, lawyering and public relations in Washington, says author Ken Silverstein is a $10-million business a day: “Beltway insiders and fat cats have completely corrupted the process.”

Shining attention on lobbyists with well-known last names, the New York Times recently revealed that the eldest son of Dennis Hastert, speaker of the House, works for a lobbying firm owned by David Miller. “The fact that he is the speaker’s son was certainly a factor, but he’s really cool”, said the much impressed Miller. Joshua Hastert, 27 says while the doors on the Hill open for him automatically, he tells his clients: “If you think I am going to the House leadership and especially my father’s office, to get this pushed, it isn’t going to happen.”

Come on. We all know that the mountain will come to Hastert Jr.

Tom Daschle, the senate majority leader has his wife Linda, 47, working for a premier lobbying firm in DC. “Why should a spouse, just because she’s married to a high-profile public official, have to walk away from a career?” She asks. Sure enough, the Congress gave the company she plugged for a lucrative contract.

And senator Trent Lott – a close Bush confidante and his lightning rod – has a son Chester, registered as a lobbyist for big time corporations.

While no rules prohibit lobbying by relatives, contend some ethics groups, “It is the smarminess and incestuousness that is most objectionable.” Pitching for the Saudis who want a facelift after 9/11 is advertising giant Burson-Marsteller netting $2.7 million a year from the Kingdom.

Musharraf and the rest want Bush, known for a nanosecond memory span, to register their existence even if it costs millions. Like the oldest profession, lobbyists will surely be around in the next millennium.

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