Friday, January 20, 2006

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Looking Back at Lobbying

I'VE FINALLY GOTTEN AROUND to something I've been meaning to do for a long time: go through my old articles from Roll Call. Now for my entire time at Roll Call, I served as copy editor ... worrying about the differences between Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and other such intricacies. But in my spare time, I did some reporting, primarily on lobbying for the Vested Interests section which launched a month or so after I started at Roll Call. Brody Mullins, now at the Wall Street Journal, was the primary lobbying reporter. But we did collaborate on the K Street Files lobbying column where we'd sift through lobbying disclosure forms and report on other interesting tidbits happening in the K Street corridor.

With Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill now intent on reforming lobbying rules in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, it will be interesting to watch how the disclosure of domestic lobbying of Congress might change. I'm assuming that there will be greater transparency, something any lobbying reporter would love. Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, any American who represents a foreign interest (whether it be Bahamian tourism board or the Saudi embassy) must register with the Justice Department and disclose many more details than you have to do when you're dealing with domestic lobbying. (Under FARA, you must detail when you called X staffer or X Congressman and what you approximately talked about, giving reporters a much more detailed picture of what may be going on.)

THE FARA REGISTRATION OFFICE is a curious place, located next to a Potbelly's behind a non-descript black door (that simply says "Registration") of the building at the southwest corner of New York Avenue and 14th Street NW. You have to be buzzed in. The office's hours are limited. The office is tiny. The computers have a tendency to not work. The backlog of filings can take more than six months to get processed by the staff. The staff can be known to get testy and moody.

It's at the FARA office where I stumbled across a number of filings related to Saudi Arabia, and the boatloads of cash the kingdom was dropping on a public relations offensive in 2002. In fact, the kingdom spent more than $15 million on lobbying for the first six months of 2002. (That's more than any U.S. company or trade organization spent in the same period -- except for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.) Some fun tidbits from the article I wrote: There was a "$3,290 dinner on Dec. 19, 2002, at the ritzy Tower Club in Tysons Corner, and a $642 lunch on Nov. 21, 2002, at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel in the District."

That article was eventually picked up and rewritten by The Associated Press and distributed across the country.

Anyhow, that article and other select ones are linked to off of my About page. There's some other good stuff there too, not all lobbying related. (An architectural history of the Hart Senate Office Building -- that marble-clad Senatorial Taj Mahal. A gay intern lawsuit. The Bible, as rewritten by Thomas Jefferson.)

TAXIS: All Zoned Out

QUIZ TIME. How many taxi zones is it from U Street NW to the Foggy Bottom Metro station? Well, it depends. We live in a city where lobbyists from generations past are blamed for the District’s gerrymandered and Byzantine meter-less taxicab zones (Hell, for all we know Jack Abramoff’s granddad is probably at fault that K Street’s rainmakers need only pay one zone to get from their downtown offices to Capitol Hill … reform-minded Democrats might say that at least.) I found myself earlier this week at the awkward intersection where Florida Avenue meets 18th and U streets NW. I needed to get to 23rd and Eye streets NW in a hurry, but I found myself straddling the dangerous DMZ between Zone 1 and Zone 2.

In these parts, Florida Avenue, which forms the northern boundary of L’Enfant’s original capital city, is prime territory for abuse by the city’s cabbies. If you aren’t careful, a seemingly honest cabbie might say “two zones, $9” — all with a smile. And most people, ignorant, will pay it, perhaps with two bucks for tip.

My cabbie wanted to charge me two zones. “Two zones?” Ha! I was ready to fight back. And my cabbie wasn’t ready for me. My destination was indeed one block into Zone 2 … 22nd Street NW forms Zone 1’s western boundary, dividing Foggy Bottom like an invisible Berlin Wall … but my starting point was in disputed territory. Does driving along a fare zone boundary for a mile or so constitute a two-zone trip? Many cabbies will say: “Why yes, it does.” Under their collective breath: “Suckers!”

I pointed out to my cabbie that he never technically entered Zone 1 and that we were west of 22nd Street. I looked at him straight in the eye. “Am I right? Are we west of 22nd Street? Are we in Zone 2?”

“Yes, sir.” He relented, giving me back a couple bucks. I told him to keep the $10 bill I gave him. It was the dirtiest, most guilt-ridden Alexander Hamilton he’s ever accepted. And he knew it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

HEALTH CARE: Epileptics Caught in the Middle

I'M NOT GOING TO DIVE INTO the middle of the Congressional debate on Medicare prescription drug benefit (the one that kept the House of Representatives up into the wee hours of the morning back in November 2003) but I will point you to Kriston Capps' post on how he's "appalled to read that coverage under the new Medicare prescription drug dispensation restricts and excludes whole classes of antiepileptic drugs." I can count Capps among those who I know who must deal with epilepsy -- a cousin of mine and a college friend have been dealing with it for years.

So what's the lesson here? Don't pass legislation on the House floor when leadership keeps the vote open for three hours beyond the normal 15-minute window? Who knows ...

Monday, January 16, 2006

PHOTOS: A Tale to Two Days

Friday morning it was foggy. Sunday was cold, breezy but sunny.