Who Controls the Lobby?

Republicans after governor, House, Senate, but what about the other branch?

It is often observed that the press is the fourth branch of government in addition to the judiciary, the executive, and the Legislature, but let’s not kid ourselves. The fourth branch of government is the lobbyists. The press may wander in and out. The press may focus on the top legislation of the moment. But the lobbyists are there every day and they pay attention to the little-noticed bills, the arcane legal language, and the footnotes. Sometimes they write them. It is this attention to detail from which they earn their money and surprise us all after session is over.

Of late, the lobbyists have started to form associations, and yes, hire their own lobbyists. They point out that they are mentioned in the First Amendment as well. Though I’m not sure the framers planned “the right to petition the government for redress of grievances” as a license to set up multi-million dollar special-interest pleadings.

During the century that the Democrats controlled the Tennessee General Assembly, there grew up a cadre of influential lobbyists. They contributed money to Democratic candidates’ election campaigns, kept them wined and dined, and served as unofficial instruments of the Democratically controlled leadership. They were often called on by the House speaker to help round up votes for bills. They were even asked, privately, to help prevent certain Republican members from being elected to leadership of the minority party.

This is not to say the lobbyists didn’t buy the occasional meal for Republicans or give small campaign contributions to Republican members in safe seats. After all, they needed a Republican vote now and then. But lobbyists knew where the power lay and were loath to offend the Democratic leadership. (We also aren’t talking about all lobbyists, some of whom are Republicans. We are talking about a group of the most influential ones.)

Assorted ethics bills over the years cut down on the wining and dining, and direct contributions to campaigns were prohibited. Far from punishing lobbyists it actually saved them money and made it harder for new lobbyists to get into the game.

Then the Republicans got control of both houses of the General Assembly. It might be expected that the newly-empowered Republican members would be ready for some payback. Great opportunity for Republicans to become lobbyists, a bad time for Democratic lobbyists.

Well, it hasn’t worked that way.

Longtime lobbyists still had friendships built up over the years. But mostly they still had the clients. Legislators know that the lobbyist in the $800 suit represents a major insurance company, banks, road builders, or any one of hundreds of major players in the state. You don’t tell the telecommunications giant’s lobbyist to take a hike because you don’t like his politics.

There was a similar situation in Washington after the Republican takeover in 1994. By the late 1990s it occurred to some Republicans that a lot of money could be made in the lobbying game. Thus was born the K Street project by Tom DeLay and his minions. Word went out that if you wanted your bill passed, maybe you ought to be hiring Republican lobbyists and not Democrats.

Last week, Tennessee House Republican leaders met with lobbyists to share polling results and to make the argument that the Republican takeover is real and this election will seal the deal. It’s possible that if the Republicans pick up a half dozen seats they will take the speaker’s chair, give all committee chairs to Republicans, and be firmly in the saddle.

Democrats have charged that this is an effort to intimidate lobbyists and prevent money flowing to Democratic candidates. Of course it is. And if Republicans get firm control, they will control redrawing all the legislative and congressional districts, a power the Democrats have held for decades. This could ensure Republican control of the Legislature for years, if not decades, to come. It has to give a lobbyist pause.

The Republicans may take the governor’s chair and retain control of the Senate and the House in this election. It also looks like they intend to get control of that other branch of government: the boys and girls in the hall.

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