TTBW 1313: 'Jim Johnston/ Lobbying 101'
Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg   ·   PBS feed date: 12 May 2005
  Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg.

In almost every election, candidates accuse each other of pandering to special interests in Washington. Often, the heavy lifting is done by lobbyists, who work for both conservative and liberal causes. While the term lobbyist is probably about as popular as 'politician' among voters, most Americans don't know what lobbyists actually do. What is the truth about lobbying? How does it actually work? And does it ultimately help or hurt our democracy?
To Find Out, Think Tank is joined by Jim Johnston, former Vice President of government relations with the General Motors Corporation and author of Driving America: Your Car, Your Government, Your Choice.
The topic before the House: Lobbying 101,
This week on Think Tank.
BW: Jim Johnston, welcome to Think Tank.
JJ: Thank you.
BW: Can we begin by you giving us some of your professional background? A little personal where you’re from; how you got to Washington; how you ended up with General Motors.
JJ: You mean where I was born and...
BW: Well, where you were born and then how you got to Washington and how you got...
JJ: Born in Nebraska and moved to California at age fourteen. Graduated there, went on a trip down through Mexico driving a jeep into Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Played poker with a fellow down there who was a vice consul of the American Embassy. He said, 'If you want to get into this racket, go to Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.' I caught a bus, came up here, went to Georgetown School of Foreign Service and became a Foreign Service officer ultimately.
BW: And then?
JJ: And then after about ten years in various assignments I was given an offer that I couldn’t refuse from General Motors.
BW: Rising ultimately to the czar of all the Russias, I mean, the head of General Motors. But as I say, you’re really talking here about lobbying generally?
JJ: Correct.
BW: Okay. Now, this we can establish credibility: do you now have any financial relationship with General Motors?
JJ: Well, I own some stock, Ben. You might say that’s a financial relationship but I’m certainly not paid by – I have no – I’m not gainfully employed anywhere.
BW: But I mean I could buy stock; anyone could...
JJ: Absolutely. Absolutely.
BW: Now, when you were – and you were a registered lobbyist, right?
JJ: I was.
BW: Okay. Are all lobbyists - corporate cause groups, whatever – are they regulated?
JJ: Anybody that’s presenting cases to the – to the Congress of the United States, yes. A citizen can write a letter but that’s – and he doesn’t have to register, but if you’re representing a special interest, an organization, a corporation, you register.
BW: And...
JJ: And there’s 17,000 registered in this town.
BW: Now when you were lobbying for General Motors, did you always feel you were right or were your primary loyalties to GM and not necessarily to the country?
JJ: Well, I came into the game a little late, and I – I certainly felt like I wasn’t going to do anything that wasn’t right. And I can say I think honestly that I was never asked to do anything that was illegal, immoral or I thought unethical and...
BW: Alright. Now let me ask this. Can a – a lobbyist, a registered lobbyist, the way you are, on either side get away with not telling the truth? Forget about the either side. Could you as a lobbyist for General Motors get away with not telling the truth to say, a congressman?
JJ: Credibility is absolutely essential in – in being effective as a lobbyist.
BW: Now, did you respect your opponents, the people who took the opposing point of view from – I know you were involved in the gasoline standards and global warming and stuff like that. Did you respect them?
JJ: Well, some of them more than others. I think yes. One of the things you really have to do if you’re going to be an effective lobbyist is to understand the other side. You have to understand their reasoning; you have to understand their case; what motivates them; how they – how they work, and so on. You really have to...
BW: I want to read you a quote. This is why I asked the question. It’s on page 93 of this Driving for America, and it’s from Steven Schneider of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who is a scientist. And he said that, 'scientists are ethically bound to tell the whole truth, which means that we must include all the doubts, caveats, ifs and buts, but we have to get some broad-based support to capture the public’s imagination. That of course entails getting loads of media encouragement so we have to offer up scenarios made simplified, dramatic statements, each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.' Now that’s a – I’d never seen that in write – in writing. There is a statement, as I’ve heard it, on the left wing of the spectrum about this problem and it’s called lying for justice. Do you think that’s operative?
JJ: Well, I think people do that, yes. I think it’s human nature to put your best foot forward. You know, the lawyers go out and make their case; they don’t try to make the other side’s case. I think when you’re lobbying you really have to let your – the person you’re talking to know what the other side is saying.
BW: Right, but here is a scientist being - an environmentalist and scientist saying we have to exaggerate and we have to hit a balance between telling the truth and exaggeration in order to get headlined and that happens.
JJ: And it happens. And it happens on both sides of the fence. It’s human nature to fall into that. It’s not a good thing. When it goes overboard and you – and you get extreme statements and scary scenarios and nothing to balance that out, it’s bad for the country.
BW: Alright. Now, let’s talk about some of the simple things that we read in the paper about lobbying. Does it properly include, let’s say, taking members of Congress on foreign trips, so-called junkets?
JJ: Well, I never took anybody on a junket, so it never occurred to me that that was a – that was a thing to do. We invited Congressmen to our plants, to our facilities, our laboratories and so on and many of them came, but they came on their own – on their own check; not on General Motors’ check. I – I was always exceedingly careful about that sort of thing, and I think General Motors is exceedingly careful.
BW: It’s in the news and I know you’re not in the business...
JJ: Not at all.
BW: ... that’s one of the things, I guess, they’re charging Tom DeLay with. I just thought it was appropriate to ask. Now, who gets lobbied? I mean, the House, the Senate, the White House... Who else?
JJ: All the departments that are applicable. Regulatory agencies and...
BW: And state and local.
JJ: Both state and local. I had responsibility for state and local government as well and...
BW: So you would communicate with the General Motors representative in Peoria, or wherever, and say 'this is what we’re saying on this issue'.
JJ: To the General Motors representative?
BW: Yes.
JJ: I had – I had offices around. I had about twelve field offices in - covering various states.
BW: Right, and you would direct them so you had a consistent line?
JJ: Yes, oh absolutely.
BW: I mean, which as you say...
JJ: We even tried to do – be consistent internationally, too, which is somewhat difficult.
BW: ...journalists could say, 'Ah hah...
JJ: Right. Exactly.
BW: '... in Belgium they’re saying this; in India they’re saying this and in...
JJ: Exactly.
BW: '... New York and Washington they’re saying that.' Does public relations in dealing with the media, is that generally understood to be part of lobbying?
JJ: Well, it’s part of making your case because the media plays a very important role. I’ve got to tell you a little story. I was very pleased to be in the Foreign Service. Trained for it at Georgetown, went into it, really liked the career. And I was working away at the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs, I think it was, in the State Department at the time, and a fellow who was about in my same age level came up to me - and I had known him and he’d been doing good work in the State Department. He said, 'Well, I’m quitting.' And I said, 'Well, I’m sorry to hear that.' He said, 'Yes, I’m going to work for one of the major news magazines' he said, 'as a journalist.' He said, 'I’m tired of just working in the vineyard here. I want to have some real impact on foreign policy.' The point of my story is journalism is – maybe is the most important lobbying organization or profession out there. Journalists have a tremendous impact on how things happen in – in Congress.
BW: They say on the hill about many or some Congressman and Senators that if you stand between them and a television camera you stand the risk of being trampled to death.
JJ: Indeed. Indeed.
BW: I mean, they want ink.
JJ: They want ink. They want ink. And they – they want the media to be on their side and everybody does. The media’s terribly important.
BW: Okay. Now, we know that big business and not so big business does lobbying. What do they think they’re getting for their money. I think they pay you – they paid you with money.
JJ: When sales were good we worked – a bonus was very important and the bonuses only came when there were good sales. And I went several years, no bonus; but they paid well and I had no complaints. But what were they getting? Increasingly Washington, D.C. is a – is a full partner with manufacturing operations in this country, especially in things like aircraft and the automobile, the motor vehicle. They regulate now thousands and thousands of pages of regulations. They regulate everything from bumper to bumper and everything in between. On – and how things are made, how – what they accomplish, what they’re supposed to do, how you sell them, how you warrant them. Everything is regulated. So it’s very, very important to have a liaison with those people that are doing all of this >regulation. And it’s not only important to the company – to the company to have somebody that knows how this place works - or government, >wherever, works - out there trying to present their side of the case; it’s also very important for the people who are regulating or writing the laws in Congress to have an understanding of how these things are going to impact the world out there – the real world.
BW: Now, I’ve asked you what big corporations like General Motors but lots of them get for their money. What do the liberal cause groups get for their money?
JJ: Well, I think they – they would say that they’ve gotten a lot of legislation and a lot of regulation implemented, passed, and so on in this town. They are very powerful. They have – it’s a little different for a – a special interest group such as an industry and a special interest group that is a professional activist organization because they have very little to lose in their fights on the Hill or in the regulatory agency. They personally, their organization, and so on. A corporation can lose a fight that can really hurt them very badly in this. So – so the – what the – what the liberal, if you will, or the pro-regulatory people get is the satisfaction of getting the United States government behind some of the ideas that they have that they think are going to be – improve the situation in the United States.
BW: Now, it has been said...
JJ: And they work very hard at it and they’re very good at it.
BW: Now, another thing that goes on in Washington, and we read about it all the time, is campaign contributions.
JJ: Yes. Right.
BW: And the big corporations - General Motors being one - but lots of them give money to candidates. Can campaign contributions buy a vote, actually?
JJ: Absolutely not. I was chairman of our PAC, our political action committee in General Motors - and we didn’t have a PAC when I first got into the – into GM and lobbying. And I can remember my predecessor in Washington telling me a story. He was meeting with a – had the chief executive officer of the corporation meeting with the Congresswoman, had turned out to be. And they were talking, the three of them and the – and the Congresswoman said to the CEO, 'You know, we just don’t see so and so around much.' And my predecessor felt very badly about that. He said – he told me he said, 'I just had lunch with her the week before. I worked with her on all these things. And so I went to her and I said, 'What did you mean you don’t see me around?' And she said, 'I’ve never seen you at one of my fundraisers. That’s what I mean.' And we did get a PAC going and I think you’ll find that the contributions were modest by comparison. They were certainly never – never...
BW: The biggest contributions are usually given by individuals rather than companies, right?
JJ: You mean in the political game?
BW: Yeah.
JJ: Oh, absolutely. Corporations have a limitation on what they can give and rarely did you give the full amount to any Congressman from your PAC. But you do – it’s very understandable. Running for political office is very expensive. It’s very understandable that people who are working on issues and take a position that is in sympathy with the position that you’re taking would hope that you would, having a PAC, make legitimate contributions to their – their campaign. And I had no problem doing that and I think there’s nothing unethical about it.
BW: If I don’t give them money, is it possible that they’ll vote against me just to spite me?
JJ: No, I don’t think that’s –- I want to say this about the Congress. Most of those people up there are really fine people and they’re trying to do the best they can and they’re really interested in the interest of the country.
BW: And they’ll hear General Motors or another big company...
JJ: And they’ll hear...
BW: ...and they’ll also hear...
JJ: ...whoever else. Exactly so. I mean, they’re going to listen to everybody. And you go to their fundraisers and everybody is there; not just me. They have people on the other side of the fence as well.
BW: We find that among the lobbyists – the well known ones – many are former elected members of Congress and I wonder if you could speak to that for a moment. I mean, they are allowed on the floor. Is that correct? And do they have certain natural advantages that someone like yourself, who came out of the State Department rather than out of being an elected office holder. Do they have certain natural advantages?
JJ: Well, yes. They knew people and they had access through their personal friendships and so on. But they also carried the baggage of being – having made a lot of decisions and made some of the colleagues unhappy with them, or they may have been in the opposite political party and this sort of thing. So they had – they had both positives and negatives, certainly.
BW: Now, when a person leaves the Congress - either he’s thrown out by the electorate, which happens very rarely the way redistricting works, or just decides not to run and then becomes a lobbyist - his salary may go from 100 or 120 or 150,000 dollars a year to a million dollars a year because he knows all these people. Half a million dollars a year, whatever, or more.
JJ: I think I quit too soon then.
BW: Excuse me.
JJ: I quit too soon if that’s what they’re paying these days.
BW: Yes. Yes. But is that – is that appropriate for a former Congressman, a former elected official?
JJ: I don’t know what they’re being paid. Some of them...
BW: But I mean...
JJ: Yes...
BW: go into that business and because of their previous contacts, which were allegedly in the public service, now serve private interests.
JJ: I think there are good people who have done that. And they do a good job and they do all the things I said – credibility, get both sides out there, honorable and so on. And then there are people who are probably not that meticulous and so I would not preclude it.
BW: Okay.
JJ: I don’t believe in cutting off somebody’s opportunity to make a living.
BW: Jim, you had said that lobbying – liberals, conservative, pro-regulation, anti-regulation – provides a service to our democracy. I wonder if you could briefly expound on that.
JJ: Yes. Yes. And I do believe that, and I think our founding fathers really preserved that notion when they got the first amendment to the Constitution. Freedom of – of press - freedom of speech, rather - and the right to petition Congress. And that’s what we’re doing; a lobbyist is petitioning Congress. Lobbyist is bringing - if he’s any good - bringing good, solid information into a place that where it – where it is needed. Now, if – when things can go bad is if only one side is being presented. And the legislatures, with their staffs, have a limited amount of time and they’re writing laws covering everything under the sun and they must have this information. It’s an obligation. I always felt it was an obligation on my part to take the information I had to give it to them so they would have that to work with.
BW: With the federal government getting bigger and bigger - either for good or for ill depending on where you stand - is this going to – is lobbying and the public relations arm of lobbying – are we going to see more and more of that?
JJ: I read someplace just the other day that there are 17,000 people here registered to lobby. Lawyers and – and all kinds of trade – there are 7,000 trade associations, representatives of all these. The more government gets into our personal and corporate and other kind – other facets of our lives – the more the federal government reaches in there, the more lobbying there’s going to be and the more there should be.
BW: In this process of lobbying -- I know a couple of years ago - and again, I know you don’t want – you were not serving and dealing with Tom DeLay, but he, as I understood it, made the case that republicans should tell trade associations to hire only republicans as their chiefs. Is all fair in love and war, or is that over the line?
JJ: Well, I think that – I think corporations have to make those decisions on their own. And I would just say about myself, I said I was in the Foreign Service. I decided I wanted to do that. When I could register politically I registered as an independent because I knew I was going to work for democrats and republicans as presidents when I was in the diplomatic core. I found it very wise to stay – to retain that same registration when I was a lobbyist. I don’t say everybody has to do that and nobody – everybody can’t do that, but I think – I think you’ve got to really be very balanced in this and the corporation has to make that decision; not the political person.
BW: Why does it cost so much? In the year 2004 the fifty highest grossing lobbying practices in America saw their – their revenues climb to 843 million dollars. Is that – why is there so much money in the business? I mean what do you...
JJ: Because more and more decisions are mading (sic) – being made right here and in state capitals that affect the lifeblood of the organizations that are paying that kind of money to be represented here. It is – you know, the way to eliminate lobbying is to get the government out of regulation and reduce the size of government. Lobbyists would drop off like flies if that were the case. But every day in every way it seems no matter what we get a new law, a new entitlement, or whatever - and it’s not just corporations that are lobbying. You pick up the newspaper and you read all of the veteran’s organizations and the Indian tribes with their gaming interests and they get all of these things that are - that are lobbying.
BW: I mean lobbyists are representing us. All of us...
JJ: The people.
BW: ... in different ways.
JJ: Yes, I would venture to say that everybody in America’s got somebody lobbying for them whether they know it or not.
BW: Does an American, in order to be heard in this cacophony that we have in America, does he have to have a lobbyist? Does every American have to be associated with somebody who has a paid guy up there doing nothing but this or can he just be a voter, listen to both sides...?
JJ: Well, let me – let me go back to De Toqueville and his writings on America in our early period. De Toqueville was – was intrigued by the fact that we’re a – we’re a country of organizations and associations and groups. You read the passage in his book about that. Everybody organizes. They’re just – the sheepherder’s group and the corn grower’s group and the guild and this, that and the other thing, and that is the way people oftentimes have their voices heard. They don’t necessarily have to have a paid lobbyist in Washington. If they’re effective with their Congressman and write him letters and see him when he comes and talk to him, they’re lobbying. They are lobbying.
BW: Jim Johnston, former lobbyist par excellence, thank you very much for joining us on Think Tank.
JJ: Ben, I’m just delighted to be here. I watch your program. It’s a good program...
BW: Alright.
JJ: ... and it’s just great to be a part of it.
BW: You said the magic words so we thank you. And thank you.
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