Playing Washington’s Inside Game

And then there were 12.

When the 435 House members and 100 senators failed in July to agree on a long-term deficit reduction plan, congressional leaders did what they often do when they don’t know what to do: They appointed a committee. But don’t sneer, for this is — cue the trumpets — a supercommittee!

Made up of only a dozen lawmakers and perfectly balanced between Repubs and Dems, this panel is to find about $1.5 trillion in spending cuts and new revenues to shrink the federal deficit. They are to come to an agreement by Thanksgiving — how’s that for a symbolic deadline? The theory is that the group will be small enough to work together across partisan lines for the good of the country, independent of the competing budgetary needs of various groups and the demands of special interests.

The problem with theories, however, is that reality has a way of intruding on their perfection. In this case, the intrusion is literal. The 12 solons will not be sitting at the table alone, for such names as AT&T, BlueCross/BlueShield, Citigroup and GE have been escorted inside by the members. They’ll not go in physically — but monetarily. For they are among the top donors of campaign cash to the 12 budgeteers, giving them an advantage over us plain citizens.

For example, Wall Streeters have invested $17 million in the campaigns of the supercommittee’s six Republicans and $15 million in the six Democrats. That pile of political money will be a screaming presence in the negotiating room, for members will be thinking about their need to get more of it for the next election and will not want to offend donors.

By the way, one of the first decisions reached by the committee members was that they would allow themselves to continue collecting campaign donations while they decide whose programs and subsidies get cut — and whose don’t. How do you think that’ll work out? Turkeys are not the only endangered species this Thanksgiving!

This is one congressional committee that’s likely to affect your life, for it’s going to decide such things as whether to whack your Social Security benefits or cut back on Big Oil’s $4-billion-a-year taxpayer subsidy. You might have an opinion about which choice the supercommittee members should make, but can you reach any of the members personally and get a chance to bend their ear? No? Too bad, because Big Oil can. And it is.

So are insurance giants, Wall Street bankers, military contractors and other corporate powers — not only because of their big-dollar campaign donations, but also because they have some very special lobbyists who’re on a first-name basis with the members. You see, these lobbyists used to work for the 12 lawmakers on the supercommittee. In all, 109 former congressional staffers have now been hired by various corporate interests to lobby their old bosses.

General Electric, for example, has eight lobbyists on board who previously were on the staffs of supercommittee members. They include the head of GE’s Washington lobbying brigade, who had been the chief of staff for Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. Indeed, Baucus’ Senate office seems to have been a training ground for influence-peddlers — 26 of his former aides are now lobbying him and the other 11 deficit whackers to protect the subsidies that oil, insurance and other corporations receive from us taxpayers.

As one congressional watchdog dryly notes, “It’s not like (the 12 members) are in an idealized, platonic debating society.”

Indeed not. Once again, the game is rigged for those with the money and connections to play inside. Of course, the hired guns deny any insider advantage. The former chief of staff to supercommittee member Dave Camp, R-Mich., for example, is hustling Big Pharma’s agenda, but he says flatly, “I make my case just like anyone else.”

Oh, sure — anyone else who has a top staffer-turned-lobbyist working the system for them, which leaves out roughly 99 percent of us! And they wonder why Congress and corporate lobbyists rank below E. coli bacteria in public approval ratings.

Jim Hightower