Surely among the top contenders: when a house is sold, the bank must pass any existing mortgage on to the new buyer. That´s right – no renegotiating, no rate increase. The new buyer´s monthly payment is frozen at the old rate.
Home buyers, real and prospective, loved it. That includes almost everybody. Realtors, of course, thought they were in heaven. Their lobbyists flew in from all over the nation to testify and vilify, to proclaim and defame. The enemy was -- you guessed it -- the mean old bankers who were not going to let billions of dollars slip through their fingers without a fight. Their legions of lawyers and lobbyists armed with bulging briefcases stomped the capitol corridors.
“This one is for all the marbles,” I overheard one wall-leaner murmur.
My boss, the Majority Floor Leader of a House of Representatives, and I watched in amusement the parade of out-of-staters and their theatrics: the all-black L.A. guys with Mercedes car keys dangling seductively in shirt pockets; the bank lobbyists in Brooks Brothers gray suits and power-red ties compulsively watching their watches; lathered-up reporters feverishly taking notes; talking head editorialists on TV foaming at the mouth.
I say amusement because the real purpose of the bill had nothing whatsoever to do with anything any of them said or thought. On top of that, the entire Really Big Show a la Ed Sullivan did not change a single vote.
In truth, the bill was doomed from the start – which was exactly its real purpose.
If you are like most people, you believe (1) some rich guy, who wants to get even richer, runs out and hires (2) a lobbyist to change a (3) troublesome law blocking the way. (4) The lobbyist directly or indirectly buys legislators who are putty in the lobbyist´s hands. (5) The lobbyist and his client win. End of story.
In the version just outlined, the dog is the lobbyist and the tail is the legislator. The dog wags the tail.
The post 5/12/2012 (Part 4: “Snowflake and Mr. Beer”) of this lobbyist series gave a concrete, specific example of how that version is oversimplified, that many if not most of the streets among clients, lobbyists and legislators are not one-way. Sometimes, in fact, the roles are even reversed, and the legislator is the unseen puppet master. Here, the tail wags the dog. When that happens, the lobbyists are at best irrelevant, at worst manipulated for ends they cannot imagine, much less understand.
If my view is correct, then any purported “reform” to clean up only a part of the streets -- the area controlled by lobbyists -- is either naïve or a fraud.
There is a way to gain control of over 50% of the streets. No candidate for public office, from the presidency on down, will dare mention it. We will return to this point.
* * *
After 60 years of sitting on the sidelines, the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives where I worked. They formed a coalition with 12 highly conservative Democrats from poor rural areas. The Coalition´s margin of victory was only one vote. However, that was enough to seize the Speakership and everything that goes with it: the powers to name committee chairmen and assign House members to committees, to refer legislation to committees for hearings and recommendations, and to manage the proceedings of the House floor.
Formally, I was the Chief Aid to the Majority Floor Leader (the “regular” non-Coalition Democrats), and was responsible for supervising bill analysts. Informally, my assignment was to bust the Coalition. But how?
Power exists only by exercising it. And the newly-ensconced Republicans did so without hesitating a second. To wit: unfailingly, all important bills sponsored by regular Democrats failed by a single vote.
It was payback time, pure and simple. As the 12 Coalition Democrats´ leader discreetly put it in the politicos´ favorite watering hole: We gonna ride ´em hard n’ put ´em up wet!
In this uncompromising atmosphere of unabashed, unabridged hatred, The Big Movida was born. In general, it was as unreal as the world in which it operated.
The Big Movida in a nutshell:
Day after day, I worked with draftsmen preparing bills that were (i) constructive and (2) highly popular with the voters. Something else this legislation had in common: (3) because it was sponsored by regular Democrats, it was born in a coffin. D.O.A.
Why bother? you ask. The essence of The Big Movida was to create atrocious voting records for Coalition members to be used against them in their campaigns for re-election two years away. However, we figured we would not have to wait that long to see results. The mere specter of punishment at the hands of the voters would create tension here and now, as time after time Coalition members were forced by their leadership to walk the plank and vote against good legislation. With enough plank-walking, we reasoned, certain GOPs would start to balk, whine. Under mounting stress, the Coalition would wobble, meander, buckle – crack.
The bill requiring banks to pass on existing mortgages played out as planned. Under the glare of TV cameras and a forest of microphones, the Coalition defeated the bill by one vote. Sitting in the House balcony, I thought I heard a collective wail throughout the state and points beyond.
I also thought I saw a few Coalition members look behind them.
* * *
The day our mortgage bill died, a Republican came to see me.
As mentioned, the Coalition had 12 defector Democrats. We, in turn, had 4 defector Republicans from the upper crust area of The Big City. This gentleman was one of them.
He was deeply worried. Republican Party chiefs already were out beating the bushes, trying to drum up somebody to run against him in the primary elections. “I need to burnish my conservative credentials -- fast.” The other GOP dissenters were in the same predicament:
I told him we had nothing on the front burner at the moment, but I would definitely see what I could do to help him and his colleagues.
A few hours later a lawyer in the Attorney General`s office called me. I owed him a big favor. He got me my first job in federal court as an expert witness on politics.
His question floored me.
“Do you know anybody in the mafia? I need to contact them.”
I told him that not only did I not know anybody, I didn´t even have the vaguest idea who in the Cosa Nostra was in charge of our region of the country. “Sorry, you know how much I would like to …ah…hmmm…wait a second…”
In politics, your moves are limited. That is all the more true when you are in the minority. Narrow and hard limits are why you must make each move serve more than one purpose; you must economize. In that regard, there was a direct connection between the requests of the GOP dissident law-maker and of the A.G. lawyer. Do you see it?
I stopped everything and had a bill drawn up prohibiting anybody with a felony conviction from having a financial interest in a racetrack. The GOP dissident sponsored it, along with the three other dissidents.
Next, I talked with the House telephone operators.
The following morning the GOP dissidents dropped their bill in the hopper. I went to my office and waited.
Not an hour passed before a call came in asking about the racetrack bill. The operators transferred the caller to me. I have no idea who it was, but it wasn´t your Aunt Mary. I transferred him to the A.G. lawyer.
The racetrack bill became part of The Big Movida. As expected, it failed by one vote. As for the lobbyists, not a single one testified against it.
As for 50% of the bill´s real purpose, all 4 GOP dissidents were re-elected. Regarding the other 50%, the A.G. lawyer later told me he flew to Arizona for a 20 minute “audience.”
I never asked him whom he met or the purpose of the meeting. Whatever it was, it wasn´t to order Godfather´s pizza.
* * *
A daily grind began that lasted for almost a month. We made the Coalition walk the plank 20 times with no visible sign of duress, much less decay. We were losing faith in The Big Movida. Then, low and behold, the Coalition handed us something beyond our wildest dreams.
Our state was among those with a formula that guarantees rich and poor counties will receive equal funding for public education. In the packet of bills introduced that morning was a measure to change the formula. What caught my eye: (i) the bill brought to mind a famous photo of Einstein at a blackboard covered with incomprehensible symbols. I have a hard and fast rule. In politics, if you don´t understand something, vote “No.” (ii) The primary sponsor was the leader of the 12 Coalition Democrats.
I showed the bill to the Majority Floor Leader. “Get a load of this,” I said: “A guy who can´t figure out a gas bill last night magically became a math pro. Can you explain it?”
“No,” he muttered: “See if you can.”
I called the Director of the State Education Department. His staff was already reviewing the bill. It was being sold as a mere “update” that consisted mostly of “cleanup language.”
That afternoon, the Director burst into my office, bill in hand. “Diabolical! What this piece of crap would do is transfer teachers and classrooms from all over the state into the districts of the 12 Coalition Democrats!”
“Can you have your staff prepare a list of how much each district in the state would win and lose?” I asked.
He pulled out his Pocket Daytimer, made a note: “Thomas, you´re pushing on an open door.”
The bill sailed through the Education Committee and arrived on the House floor. The Majority Floor Leader handed out to all House members and the media the Education Department´s list of winners and losers.
Coalition activity on the floor suddenly, noticeably mounted. A lot of heads were bobbing, bodies weaving, arms folding, fingers pointing, hands trembling. The Coalition leaders were yanking a lot of chains. As expected, the formula “reform” bill passed by one vote.
Two weeks later, the legislative session ended. As far as we were concerned, The Big Movida flopped. All that work for nothing. We were packing up, getting ready to go when a call came in from a “birdie” – legislative parlance for informant – to check the bulletin board.
Two freshmen GOPs from uptown neighborhoods of The Big City had scheduled a press conference for that afternoon.
They announced they were leaving the Coalition and that they were changing their party affiliation from Republican to Independent. The reason: too often the Coalition wanted us to vote against the interests of our districts.
In the course of three seconds, we went from the agony of defeat to the thrill of victory. The Speaker had one more year to serve of his two-year term – he could not be removed -- so the only thing that changed was the floor vote. Nevertheless, the writing was on the wall. With it, the House became a more civilized place. One indication: in the following legislative session our mortgage act passed and became state law.
Over a 60 year period the Republicans had mastered the art of how to act like a minority. They had no idea how to act like a majority. Ramrodding legislation through and trashing the opposition´s bills every chance you get just to show you can do it, will eventually ruin you. It leaves you open to jiu-jitsu tactics like The Big Movida in which your own strength is used against you.
If the other team has a good bill, give the opponent his due. Don´t oppose the bill, but leave it to him to promote it. As for you, create and promote your own stuff.
The Democrats, for their part, learned how to do something they never envisioned, much less taken seriously: how to act like a minority. Too long in power, too many had grown fat, dumb and happy.
You don´t see lobbyists in this discussion? That is the point: lobbyists were beside the point.
Sometimes lobbyists run the show; they are truly the fourth branch of government. Other times, they are reduced to spectators who have no idea what they are watching.
* * *
I hope you enjoyed this five-part series on lobbyists. Its goal was to furnish an unprecedented transparency regarding how legislatures really work. Political science texts, biographies of politicos, university lectures, interviews, media reports and analyses: none have ever told where it`s at. Only an insider can do that. Hopefully, this series filled part of the gap.
Why the gap is there:
An ironclad rule has been in place for centuries: the people should not be allowed to see how two things are made: sausages and laws. I decided to break the rule about laws because public knowledge is the prerequisite to what needs to be done. To wit:
I wrote that our Big Movida was as unreal as the world in which it operated. I took that position because the real Big Movida does what we did not do: change that unreal world.
Across the nation, Houses of Representatives are a spectacle that should have been shut down years ago. The true Big Movida, then, is the switch to a unicameral legislature (see post of 9/26/2011: “Goodbye, Tweedle-dum”). About half of the nations of the world have a unicam. With our catastrophic national debt, it is time the U.S. joined that world.
Footnote: as always, certain details have been changed to perplex the opponents.