There is a federal law forbidding federal government agencies from directly lobbying congress. However, that does not leave them helpless. Every program has a constituency and that constituency is organized. The dynamic is simple; recipients of government programs reap very large benefits while the cost to the average taxpayer of that specific program is small. The recipients have a financial interest in organizing and lobbying for more and the average taxpayer will be unmoved to respond. That is how programs grow and why they can never be cut.
There is no law, however, forbidding foreign countries from lobbying our congress. And they all do.
Many years ago, my wife Lynne and I were in Washington, D.C. visiting a friend who had retired from the Army. He was working for a company that sought contracts from the Department of Defense and he took us to see his new office in Rosslyn. Casually, in the course of walking through the building, he pointed out offices that were occupied by representatives of foreign governments. I asked him what those representatives could do for that nation that their embassies could not do. He said, “Get their share of the U.S. budget.”
Years later I saw colleagues retire from Congress and move into the lobbying business. A very large number of them showed up the following year representing the interests of foreign countries. And those interests are broad, from budget considerations to affecting language in bills that could reflect well or not so well on that nation.
I am not aware of any grants, or any other kind of distribution from the budget of any foreign nation, that benefit the United States.
The principal owner in our friend’s company was African-American. Our friend and his boss visited Atlanta on a business trip and stayed at our house. Over dinner I asked the owner about his background in defense issues. He had none. He frankly explained to us that his value to the company was in how many “points” it was worth in the bid process to have minority ownership. Indeed, he was interviewing for a minority contract with the city of Atlanta the next morning.
Our friend, however, knew the ropes at the DOD. He had spent many years at the Pentagon and retired at a high rank. He proudly explained how he would make a proposal for a project that piqued the interest of one of his former colleagues. He would then help that former colleague out by writing up the bid specifications for him. The proposal, of course, would be written such that theirs was the only company that could qualify to bid.
I was stunned. “You’re kidding me aren’t you?”
“No. No. That’s how it’s done. When I was in the Pentagon I worked it that way for my friends too.”
He saw nothing wrong with the practice at all. That’s the way it works.
Dealing with our federal government you are not measured by your competence or your product. You are measured by your bid. Once the bid is won it matters little whether you meet it. They are constantly adjusted upward.
President Trump was elected in part because he promised to build a wall on the southern border. Immediately after the election we are hearing from some in the Department of Homeland Security that part of the border may be protected by new technology rather than a wall. Whatever is proposed, it will be new and shiny and bureaucrats will be in thrall. I’ve heard that song before.
In 2005 Boeing won a bid for a virtual wall to cover 2000 miles of southern border. The bid was $7 billion and the pilot project was begun for 53 miles in Arizona. After a billion dollars the project was cancelled in January of 2011 with nothing to show for it.
I suggest some modest reforms: Interests between nations should be a matter for the State Department and they should be handled at the ambassador level, not through lobbyists. The law preventing federal agencies from lobbying Congress should be expanded to include foreign governments. It should be illegal for U.S. companies to represent foreign governments before Congress.
Businesses that fail to complete their government project under the contracted price should be prevented from bidding on future projects.
Donald Trump has promised to drain the swamp. This is about as swampy as it gets.
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