By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
Surging oil prices are no laughing matter. In another time unions and consumer groups would have lashed out at the president for letting the oil companies get away with gouging. But last week's protest by truckers in Washington isn't likely to go anywhere because the unions (read Teamsters) are not interested in basic questions about economic well-being in the midst of their campaign to elect Gore. The Republicans, of course, are pro-Big Oil all the way.
The price hikes are a bad omen for the Democrats on two counts. First, gas prices hit home with everyone who votes, and they open a wedge into claims of a booming economy by presaging serious inflation. Second, price hikes endanger the party's free-trade mantra. They hurt Japan, which, with a teetering economy, imports most of its fuel. And higher fuel prices will make life even tougher in developing nations, which, because of industrialization and the growing use of motor vehicles, now use 43 percent of the world's oil output. In short, the rising cost of petroleum can lead to a slowdown in the global economy and possible recession.
Of course, the so-called fuel crisis should be seen in a broader historical perspective. Since the modern-day sellout to the oil titans began under Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, one administration after another has sucked up to Big Oil, a spigot for campaign cash in both parties. Carter opened the floodgates by deregulating the wellhead price of natural gas. Reagan followed by deregulating petroleum. Bush fought environmental regulations that would have curbed the use of oil. Then he went to war to make oil safe for democracy. Clinton/Gore went further, opening up Alaskan oil for Asian export and relaxing regulations governing offshore production in the Gulf of Mexico and the Northwest. Al Gore made money when the government sold off part of its reserve to Occidental Petroleum, a company in which his family has long had considerable holdings.
The reality is simple. The world is awash in oil. The problem today is the same as it always has been: how to control glut, not scarcity. Since the end of World War I, a cartel of mostly U.S. companies has run the business, withholding supplies to keep prices up. OPEC altered the mix, but didn't change the cartel structure. Now the cartel is again withholding supplies to run up prices. Prices likely will continue to go up until Alan Greenspan figures the banks will be hurt by inflation. Then henot Clintonwill stop it.
Washington is overrun with lobbyists, and the deans of the business often are former members of Congress who can guarantee their well-heeled corporate clients easy access to the Capitol, including privileges on the House or Senate floor during votes on key issues. This sort of access makes renting the Lincoln Bedroom for an eveningas Bill Clinton did during the last election cycleseem unimportant.
More than 130 former members were registered as lobbyists in 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. According to one estimate, at least 15 percent of ex-lawmakers become lobbyists. "What a former member brings to the table is an understanding of the process, what it is like to be a member," Brenda Becker, vice president of congressional communications for Blue Cross/Blue Shield told Congressional Quarterly. "They know the personalities, the hot buttons." Members-turned-lobbyists include such well-known politicians as former Democratic Senate majority leader George Mitchell; longtime House powerhouse Vic Fazio of California, also a Democrat; and former-senator-turned-treasury secretary Lloyd Bentsen of Texas.
While members are required to wait a year after they leave public office before lobbying, this is a technical and relatively meaningless rule. Moreover, senior memberslike Bob Dole, who now works for Verner, Liipfert, the largest and most powerful lobby shop in the capitalwill consult with their clients on strategy or send junior associates to the Hill to do the arm-twisting. And many members just don't bother to register as lobbyists.
Former members retain unusual privileges that make them particularly valuable as lobbyists. Unlike other lobbyists, they have access to members-only dining rooms in the Capitol, as well as the House gym, and they can go on the floor to mingle with members when legislation comes up for a vote.
Most impressive in a former member's arsenal of lobbying tools is control over the remnants of unspent campaign funds. Take the case of longtime Louisiana congressman Robert Livingston, who was slated to take over as Speaker after Newt Gingrich's resignationuntil the fact that he had had an extramarital affair was exposed. As chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Livingston oversaw half a trillion dollars in federal outlays. He quit Congress and, along with three congressional aides, set up shop under the name Livingston Group as a lobbyist.
According to CQ, after Livingston became a lobbyist, he contributed some of the $161,000 he had stored up in campaign cash to dozens of legislators, including half a dozen members of the Appropriations Committee. He gave money to Bill Young, the Florida Republican who currently chairs the full committee and made contributions to three appropriations subcommittee chairmen: defense chair Jerry Lewis of California, agriculture chair Joe Skeen of New Mexico, and Harold Rogers of Kentucky, who runs the subcommittee that funds the justice, commerce, and state departments. And Livingston had enough left over to give $15,000 to the Republican National Committee. Meanwhile, if he himself was prevented by law from lobbying his former members, his aides were free to do so.