July 6, 2009

The People Problem in Politics

There's no better way than that to refer to the Washington Post's fascinating graphic which illustrates the revolving door of Congressional lobbying. The WaPo determined that "nearly half of former Capitol Hill aides hired by major health-care companies to lobby Congress in the first quarter of 2009 previously worked for" the Senate Finance Committee -- the entity taking the lead in drafting health-care legislation. This led the WaPo's Ezra Klein to observe that:

In some ways, this sort of thing worries me a lot more than the actual money being pumped into the system. Jesse Unruh, the legendary speaker of the California state assembly, famously said that "if you can't take their money, drink their whiskey, screw their women, and vote against 'em anyway, you don't belong in the Legislature." My sense is that there are actually quite a few politicians in Washington who, after years of being badgered by lobbyists and special interests, can do exactly that.

But saying no to your former friends and confidantes is a whole other thing entirely. Suppressing your instinct to trust a former chief of staff and legislative director is a hard thing to do. Refusing to return the calls of favored staffers and colleagues goes against every social grain in our bodies. It should be easy to separate professional responsibilities and personal feelings. But it isn't.

I bring this up because this issue looms just as large for food policy (in fact I'd love to see this analysis applied to the Senate Agriculture Committee). Congress is equally awash in money from agribusiness and food companies -- and experts like Marion Nestle have called for restricting corporate money in politics as the best means to change the direction of food policy in this country. But short of making it illegal for former Congressional aides to lobby their former employers ever, it's hard to see how you can take the personal appeal out of the equation. Maybe the Senate really is just more trouble than it's worth...

UPDATE: Ob Fo makes explicit the connection that many Finance Committee Senators do in fact sit on the Ag Committee as well. The lineup: Sens. Charles Grassley (IA), Max Baucus (Mont), Blanche Lincoln (Ark), Kent Conrad (ND), Mike Crapo (UT), Debbie Stabenow (Mich), Pat Roberts (Kan). Ob Fo goes on to point out that this group of Senators represent some of Big Ag's biggest supporters in Congress: "it's worth pondering what kind of an influence they--and their staffers-turned-lobbyists--could potentially have on reform debates." No kidding.

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