Washington Babylon — November 16, 2009, 9:53 am

The Washington Version of the Twinkie Defense

The New York Times reported over the weekend that dozens of statements from members of congress printed in the Congressional Record during the House debate on health care “were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies.”

“E-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that the lobbyists drafted one statement for Democrats and another for Republicans,” said the newspaper. “Genentech, a subsidiary of the Swiss drug giant Roche, estimates that 42 House members picked up some of its talking points — 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats, an unusual bipartisan coup for lobbyists.”

Some members of congress expressed regret for having their statements written by lobbyists, and said they assumed that their staffers had put the words in their mouths, not lobbyists. But an unnamed lobbyist “close to Genentech” defended the practice, saying “This happens all the time.”

It’s good to know that lobbyists routinely write statements for members of congress, but that defense — that these sorts of things “happen all the time” so it must be OK — isn’t very compelling. Try it during your next court appearance and see how the judge reacts.

(A few years ago I found that the lobby firm of Patton Boggs had drafted a statement for Congressman Joe Barton of Texas in support of its client Kazakhstan. “Mr Speaker, if the United States is to become truly energy independent, it must seek non-OPEC alternatives for our supply of oil,” Barton’s statement said. “Kazakhstan can — and is willing to — help greatly in this endeavor.” When asked about this, Barton’s spokesman replied: “Some think Congress has no business listening to people who are paid to know something. They think congressmen would do better to get all their information from newspapers and social activists. We think that’s baloney. We take our facts where we find them, and we use them where we choose.”)

Another version of that defense is when politicians claim that they deeply believe in campaign finance reform but they can’t actually restrict contributions to their own campaigns because that would amount to “unilateral disarmament.” Do a Google search with those words and “campaign finance” and you’ll see that it’s been trotted out forever as a justification for raking in as much cash as possible, by both Democrats and Republicans. There is some logic to the claim, but at bottom it’s simply an easy way to claim virtue and innocence while having neither, and it allows for political grandstanding and complete inaction. The perfect Washington combination.

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