Monday, May 22, 2006

Monday with McKenna: Lobbyists—Soldiers of Tyranny

Today, Terry McKenna reveals why we should have as little patience with lobby-ism as we do with fundamentalism. Mr. McKenna, fire away.

Lobbyists. We see their effects everywhere. Lobbyists write many of our laws and many of the Op-Ed pieces that we read in our newspapers. Lobbyists form a large minority of the talking heads we see on TV or hear on radio. Lobbyists also give money to electoral campaigns and then ask legislators to vote their way. (Somehow this process is never seen as quid pro quo – which is against the law!)

Lobbyists are involved with all levels of government, from the national government down to the small town. Small towns see many fewer lobbyists – but they come when an issue arises that concerns them. This winter, a lobbyist from a phone company spoke before a town meeting in my small town. He wanted our town to waive the existing town franchise fee for setting up a new cable service.

But why write about this issue now? Well, I’ve been looking for the right time to comment about the “Israel Lobby.” Early this year, a furor arose when the Kennedy School of Government (Harvard) released a paper, which asserted that US support for Israel is at odds with our national interest. It speculated that the reason for US Israel policy is a loose agglomeration of actors dubbed the “Israel Lobby.”

But is there an "Israel Lobby"? No one can be sure, but after the publication of this paper, something went into overdrive. Figures like Alan Dershowitz condemned the paper for anti-Semitism. Behind the scenes manipulations (threats?) led to the removal of the Kennedy School’s logo from the paper. And one of the writers, Stephen Walt, stepped down from his post as academic dean.

In any case, the point of the outrage was to compare the claims of authors Walt and Mearsheimer to those of an infamous early 20th century publication – The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Thus, the very act of wondering why Israel has the support that it has (and merely proposing a possible answer) was made to seem like a claim that Jews operate some sort of secret conspiracy in favor of Israel.

I don’t want to discuss the paper, other than to state that it seems reasonable and level headed. What I want to do instead is point out that all lobbies act in an unseen way. And all successful ones have more influence than seems appropriate based on the size or economic clout of the actors.

Let’s go to some case studies of other areas where we know for certain that lobbyists operate.

Estate Taxes

This is a good place to begin. The top 2% of Americans pay estate taxes. And most estate taxes are paid by the top 0.14% for Americans. Yet polls suggest that most of us think that the effort to end estate taxes is aimed at all of us. When my 87 year old mother died in 2003, her estate (assets less expenses) was approximately $260,000. Not one dime was owed for estate taxes.

Somehow, about 20 years ago, a few well-financed conservative lobbies (think tanks) started to lobby for change. This was a diffuse effort, and the ultimate goal was not clear to the rest of us, but they started by changing the language - thus estate taxes became “death taxes.” They also added “pro growth” to as many phrases as possible. Over the years they honed their pitch and over time, the media accepted the new phrase. As “death taxes” became the standard term for estate taxes, it became clear that estate taxes were doomed – or would be soon. Estate taxes are now set to end for one year in 2010. It’s a good bet that if the Republicans retain their hold on Congress, the removal will be made permanent. For a typical conservative website, try this one.


What this awkward word means is something that produces an abortion. And to most of us, abortion is the cessation of pregnancy. But there is the small segment on the right who want to use anti-abortion language to stop birth control. They do so by sowing confusion over when pregnancy begins. Here’s how – let’s look at a simple question – when does human life begin – the common answer is – at fertilization. Sounds ok, doesn’t it? But it’s not true. Do you know that 40% or more of fertilized eggs fail to implant (and then wash away)? So pregnancy never occurred.

What right wing Christians are trying to accomplish is the re-labeling of contraceptives as abortifacients. Thus all the furor over the morning after pill – high dose hormones (not to be confused with RU 485, which is an abortifacient).

Since most of us are not health care specialists, it’s easy to be confused (easy to be lied to). And then the damage is done. The bad policy decisions follow. For links to right wing Christian websites, look here and here.


I picked diversity just to show that both the left and right use diffuse forms of lobbying to obtain what they want. Diversity was not a word that I heard growing up. It seemed to emerge in the 1990’s as a way to dress up affirmative action. Thus, if you look at a typical diversity website (here or here) you’ll see a soft-sell variety of advocacy. I don’t want to discuss the details, but if you look at the papers, you’ll see an effort to influence and engage. And one that has been every bit as successful as anything done on the right. Thus, once the phrase affirmative action was replaced (for the most part) by diversity, the battle was all but won.

The Israel Lobby

So, back to the “Israel Lobby.” Is there any such thing? If we consider lobbies to include diffuse actors then yes, there is such a lobby. Does it have undue influence? Again, all successful lobbies have influence out of proportion to their relevance – so yes.

Pre-1947 Palestine was an Arab colony which began to be bought up by European Jews who rightly saw the threat to their existence by the unending anti-Semitism of Europe. During the 1930s, lucky European Jews made it to Palestine, and in 1947, they created Israel. For them it was an assertion of their right to exist. For Palestinians, it was just another western assault on their medieval society.

The US has no easy way out here. We don’t have the power to control Israel’s opponents; and if push comes to shove, there may come a time when we have to modify our support for Israel. Our support is one undeniable reason why terrorism exists. Our support for Arab autocracy is another good reason. A third reason may be unique cultural factors that we are unable to parse.

We don’t want to abandon Israel, but as time goes by, our support may only make things worse.

—T. McKenna

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