Interview with Mike Pertschuk,
Co-Director, The Advocacy Institute

Congress & Lobbyists: The Inside Influence Game

HS: What is the significance of money and technology?

PERTSCHUK: Money, technology, and the techniques of creating the appearance of mass movements all have tipped the scales so that money looms larger and larger. The voice of money is larger and larger. What technology has done is to give a megaphone to those voices who already had loud voices and almost drown out those voices that don't have money.

PERTSCHUK: Now, if one very narrow segment of the population is able to make its views appear to be much larger, much more powerful, much more intense than the general public, that's a distortion, a terrible distortion and the larger -- the role of money and the larger the role of these techniques gets, the more distorted our political processes are.

HS: Has it become acute and if so, when? I mean, if it's a phenomenon you're talking about it starting in the '70s, but is this a particular phenomenon of the '90s?

PERTSCHUK: Well, it's come to full flower in the '90s. I mean, it's come to full flower, I think, for a number of reasons. First of all, this is not a matter of partisan politics. I mean, the Democrats, to some extent, invited in the use of money and sought out corporate money in their campaigns.

But in the '90s with the new Republican leadership in Congress, there's a greater opening to corporate interests, a greater -- a greater willingness to hear what corporate interests have to say.

The Tobacco Lobby: Money, Grassroots, and Telemarketing

HS: What do you mean when you say that the tobacco companies are buying up the needy groups or buying up the left?

PERTSCHUK: I think that the tobacco companies have set about systematically to find openings where they can give money to groups who are potentially critics to silence them, if possible to get them to support them. And they look across the spectrum of who are potential critics. The one thing they look at is those groups that are traditionally thought of as the left, progressive groups, groups working on hunger and homelessness for the needy, the poor.

HS: Give me some examples of an unlikely groups that have received tobacco money?

PERTSCHUK:The benefits of Philip Morris and the other companies giving to groups like the black caucus and the women's political caucus and other groups are not so much that they will get active lobbying support for their activities, but that they will silence voices that might otherwise be heard.

It's especially true, for example, in the case of the women's political caucus and on women's issues. I mean, the companies have been very generous to a whole range of women's groups. They publish the National Directory of Elected Women Officials. Women within those organizations have raised the issue of tobacco as a women's issue, the target marketing of women, the advertising which is targeted to young women, especially the advertising which promises women that if they smoke, they'll stay thin. It's a very powerful message.

Those who have tried to raise that issue and say, "This is a women's issue, this is a women's health issue," have been silenced and it was very clear that they were silenced because these organizations are dependent upon tobacco money. Now, there's nothing visible except the lack of voices where voices should be.

HS: Tell me about the letter that was sent by some Senators to the FDA?

PERTSCHUK: Thirty members of the Senate wrote a letter to the Food and Drug Administration protesting their proposed regulations to protect kids from tobacco. The total amount of tobacco contributions to those 30 members of the Senate were over a million dollars, over a million dollars. Someone's called them the "Million Dollar Gang."

Now, among those members, especially the tobacco state senators, the money probably didn't mean a damn thing. They would have written that letter anyway, but there are other members of the Senate marginal, marginally interested in tobacco, who would not have written that letter --

I can't tell you who they are -- but who would not have written that letter because they had no incentive, no need to write that letter except theknowledge that the tobacco industry had been friendly to them, had given them money.

Tobacco lobbyists had been friendly to them, had done favors in other areas. There's a sense of obligation, both for the money and for other favors that moves passivity into action.

HS: What is "stealth lobbying"?

PERTSCHUK: When we use the term stealth lobbying, we talk about the combination of money and technology, that's communications technologies, to create the appearance of a vast, spontaneous grassroots movement which would not have occurred without the infusion of money and technology from the top.

I mean, a grassroots movement by definition is it's a spontaneous movement from the bottom, citizens outraged coming together to petition city hall or the Congress.

Stealth lobbying involves the process by which lobbyists, usually based in Washington, decide that in order to advance their corporate goals, they need to create the appearance from the top down of a spontaneous grassroots movement. And they use a whole range of techniques to do just that. That's stealth lobbying.

HS: What do you think the tobacco industry is after?

PERTSCHUK: The tobacco industry really most wants to get rid of Bill Clinton. If it can get rid of Bill Clinton and have Bob Dole, for example, who's taken lots of tobacco money over the years and has been very sympathetic with them and a real ally of Jesse Helms on these issues, if they can do just that, they're troubles are virtually over with the federal government because all the initiatives from FDA and OSHA that are significant originate inside the Clinton administration.

The tobacco industry was never afraid even under days of Democratic rule of Congress of strong legislation passing the Congress to regulate tobacco because they could always stop legislation, always, because they always had enough tobacco state members to do that.

What they are really desperately afraid of is initiatives that come out of the administration in which they have to get Congress to stop the administration and in which the burden of going forward legislatively falls to the tobacco lobby where pro-health legislators like Henry Waxman and Ted Kennedy can stop their efforts to overturn what the administration is doing.

So their single target has to be the elimination of Clinton. And then the second target has to be preventing the Democrats from regaining control of Congress because it really was the Democrats who pursued the tobacco control initiatives, people like again Henry Waxman and Ted Kennedy and the late Mike Synar who were powerful senior members with control over committees were their biggest threat.

HS: And what do you see in terms of their money flow or other activities that support this conclusion?

PERTSCHUK: Well, they've quadrupled -- all corporate interests have -- all the corporate lobbies have -- and the PACs -- have expanded vastly their contributions to Republicans. I think that to some extent, thetobacco industry has done even more. They are among the leaders in increasing the flow of money into Republican candidate and party coffers because they do see themselves as in the hands of the Republican Party.

This is quite a shift, incidentally, because for many years, the tobacco lobby was close especially to the southern tobacco state Democrats. And so it really has been a radical shift of their funding and their lobbying focus from Democrats to Republicans.

HS: You talked about "front groups." What do you mean?

PERTSCHUK: The tobacco industry has a terrible problem. I'd be sympathetic if they weren't doing such terrible things. Nobody believes a word they say. Nobody believes anything a tobacco lobbyist or a tobacco public relations spokesman says, nobody. So their need is to find people who they can encourage who do have credentials, who do have authority, especially scientific authority or the credentials of having been a respected government official who will speak in their place.

And one of the ways they do this is to fund some of these think tanks that have grown up, especially those that are concerned with preserving the free enterprise system and whose larger mission is seen as a less partisan one, a less corrupt one that is not just defending the tobacco and the cigarettes, but protecting the whole free enterprise system.

So if they can get groups like the Citizens for a Sound Economy to speak out on the need for controlling the monster of FDA, including FDA's effort to regulate tobacco, and that appears to come from an authoritative source, scientific source, a disinterested source, they've really gained something that they cannot get speaking in their own voice.
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