Lobbyists Exploit Provision Allowing them to “Honor” Lawmakers

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USA Today–certainly not well-regarded as a source for hard-hitting journalism–has a surprisingly good piece that looks at how lobbyists are able skirt campaign finance regulations by contributing funds to “honor” lawmakers. The paper writes:

Despite a ban on gifts to lawmakers and limits on campaign contributions, lobbyists and groups that employ them can spend unlimited money to honor members of Congress or donate to non-profits connected to them or their relatives. The public – until now – had little insight into the scope of this largely hidden world of special-interest influence.

For the first time, those contributions are being tracked due to ethics rules adopted in 2007. What USA Today found in their comprehensive review wasn’t pretty: lobbyists and their corporate backers are using the loophole to influence lawmakers.

Two specific examples from the article:

Last year, the telecommunication industry gave more than $72,000 to non-profits and charities in honor of Rockefeller, who advocated legislation to provide legal immunity to phone companies that participated in the government’s anti-terrorism eavesdropping program. The largest donation came from AT&T. At the time, Rockefeller chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee and helped broker a deal on the bill, which passed last year.

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House energy committee, asked an energy company to donate to a foundation that bears his name. His daughter-in-law, Amy Barton, is the unpaid director.

Utility giant Exelon gave $25,000 to the non-profit last June and $50,000 in 2006, according to federal records and interviews with company officials.

Barton wrote to Exelon CEO John Rowe, seeking the money, says David Brown, Exelon’s top lobbyist. The company is one of the nation’s largest producers of nuclear energy. Barton has long advocated on the industry’s behalf, pushing for the opening of a nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain, outside Las Vegas.

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Servants of War: Private Military Corporations and the Profit of Conflict

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

Over the years, I’ve read a number of books on the private mercenary industry and the use of military contractors in the so-called “War on Terror.” Most often, these books have focused on one or two companies–for example Blackwater–and used them to draw conclusions about the industry as a whole.

Rolf Uesseler’s Servants of War: Private Military Corporations and the Profit of Conflict takes a different approach and focuses on the industry as a whole and uses short case studies of specific companies in order to illustrate broader points. Instead of focusing solely on the “War on Terror” and the most recent wars of the United States, Uesseler takes a much broader view and looks at private military companies around the world. This may owe to the fact that the book was translated from German, but whatever the reason, it offers a welcome break from the typically U.S.-centered literature on the topic.

Uesseler examines how governments, intelligence agencies, private companies, warlords, drug cartels, and rebel groups have come to rely on private military companies to support a wide variety of activities. Private corporations use them to support resource extraction and to police sweatshops, states use them to prop up weak governments and enforce their rule, and intelligence agencies use them to facilitate illegal arms trades. States also use private military corporations to circumvent national laws. For example, a state can hire a private military contractor to fight a war or support one side in a war without needing to officially enter the conflict.

Through all of these activities, private military companies often operate in a legal gray area. The pursuit of profit is their main goal and all other concerns–including law–are often superseded by this goal. That is why in countries like Iraq we see mercenaries run amok–all the companies really care about is the constant flow of lucrative contracts. In many cases, there are no local laws that govern the conduct of mercenaries–as was initially the case in Iraq when they were granted immunity from prosecution–and the countries that send contractors often have little legal oversight of their activities. Moreover, in many cases private military companies subvert democratic notions and are able to conduct their activities with limited oversight and transparency.

In addition his examination of the contemporary activities of private military corporations, Uesseler also includes a brief overview of the historical evolution of mercenaries. He looks at their origins in Ancient Greece through the French Revolution when they largely went out of favor. However, with the end of the Cold War, they have experienced a resurgence. This resurgence is owed to many factors, among those Uesseler highlights a security vacuum with the collapse of the Cold War, conflicts in the Third World, a national energy policy in the United States that demands access to oil regardless of the cost, the increasingly technological orientation of warfare and militaries’ inability to keep up with the technological advances of the private sector, and similar technological gains in the intelligence sector.

Overall, Servants of War is one of the most comprehensive books on private military corporations. It’s very thorough and well-researched, and while that is good, it does make for reading that is a bit on the dry side of things. You will certainly walk away having learned a lot, but there are sure to be times when you wished the author wrote in a more engaging style. Nevertheless, it’s an important book that deserves to be read, especially by those who consider themselves anti-war.

Rolf Uesseler, Servants of War: Private Military Corporations and the Profit of Conflict, (Soft Skull Press, 2008).

Michigan Health Insurance Companies Use Near-Monopolies to Set Prices

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A new study by the Health Care for America Now coalition criticizes the consolidation of the private health insurance industry, saying that it is creating skyrocketing premiums for both patients and employers. The study says that the majority of metropolitan areas–over 94%–are “highly concentrated” according to the Department of Justice. This means that insurers are essentially free to raise premiums or reduce services with impunity.

In Michigan, premiums increased 78% from 2000 to 2007 according to an analysis of private health insurance companies in the state. Wages have increased by only 5%, meaning that insurance premiums have risen 17 times faster than wages. Most areas in the state are “highly concentrated” and there is no real competition to the major private insurance companies. In fact, the state’s biggest health insurer–Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan–controls 65% of the state market. Here in Grand Rapids, Blue Cross and Blue Shield controls 46% of the market while the number two insurer, Priority Health, controls 46%. This gives the two companies 92% market share.

In order to increase competition and effectiveness of the insurance market, the group advocates increased regulation of private insurance companies and the development of a public health insurance plan.

Report: Anti-Union Behavior has Intensified

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A new study by labor expert and Cornell University Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner has found that employer opposition to labor unions has intensified in recent years and has become more punitive.

The new report–titled “No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing“–looks at five years of employer behavior in elections supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The study found that it is standard practice for workers to be subject to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance, and retaliation for union activity. In campaigning against unions, corporations frequently engage in a combination of the following tactics:

  • 63% interrogate workers in one-on-one meetings with their supervisors about support for the union
  • 54% threaten workers in such meetings
  • 57% threaten to close the worksite
  • 47% threaten to cut wages and benefits
  • 34% fire workers

Moreover, even in instances when employees are able to form a union, corporations are able to continue to drag their heels. 52% of employees are still without a contract a year after they win a union election and 37% remain without a contract after two years.

Bronfenbrenner compared the results of this study to past studies and found that employers are using a combination of ten common anti-union tactics in 49% of unionization drives, up from 26% twelve years ago.

The report also looks at the difference between private-sector and public-sector unionization rates. In the public-sector, 37% of workers belong to unions compared to just 8% in the private-sector. Public-sector workers often have more freedom to form unions as coercive anti-union tactics are considerably less common. In many cases, they can form unions through a majority sign-up process rather than through elections.

The report blames employers’ anti-union tactics for driving down the unionization rate to 12.4% in the United States.

Study Likely to Fuel Debate over Employee Free Choice Act

Bronfenbrenner’s study and its conclusions will likely contribute to the ongoing debate over the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). The Act would make it easier for workers to form unions and would reduce the advantages that employers currently hold (such as using anti-union intimidation tactics). Moreover, it would mandate that contracts be signed quicker and allow unions to be formed either through the elections process–which has been thoroughly manipulated by corporations over the years–or through a majority sign-up.

Not surprisingly, the Employee Free Choice Act has been opposed by major corporations and business groups, including some here in West Michigan. The United States Chamber of Commerce rejected this study, saying that it was skewed in favor of labor, although it was peer-reviewed by other academics in the field.

Starbucks Targeted for Anti-Union Activity

Over the past several years, MediaMouse.org has regularly reported on efforts aimed at organizing Starbucks workers both here in Grand Rapids and around the country. The Starbucks Workers Union just celebrated its fifth anniversary despite an ongoing campaign of anti-union intimidation by Starbucks.

Since the union’s formation, Starbucks has been convicted multiple times of violating the National Labor Relations Act. At the same time it is waging this aggressive anti-union campaign, Starbucks is also working to prevent the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, a measure that would make it easier to form unions. The Act would also increase sanctions against companies like Starbucks.

Brave New Films has produced a very good short video that looks at organizing efforts at Starbucks and the company’s anti-union behavior:

In addition to the film, Brave New Films has also launched a new website, StopStarbucks.com that aims to place the company under increased scrutiny.

As part of the new website, there is a petition that demands that Starbucks allow its employees to form unions and asks that it stop opposing the Employee Free Choice Act. Signing it is a great way to follow-up on the organizing done by the Grand Rapids Starbucks Workers Union.

Local and Michigan Headlines: Amway 50th Anniversary; Michigan Politicians on Twitter

Here are what we think are some of the more important stories to come out of Grand Rapids and Michigan in the past 24 hours:

  • And, things wrap themselves up in a neat little package – Michigan Liberal has perhaps the last word on the controversy surrounding Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and his canceled speech in Grand Rapids. When the Kent County GOP canceled it over Huntsman’s stance in support of civil unions, the DeVos family stepped in. It turns out that there may have been a practical reason for that–Huntsman was being consider to be Ambassador to China, a country where Amway has aggressively expanded in recent years.
  • Rep. Scripps and House Dems Introduce Health Care Package – The Michigan House Democratic Caucus has introduced a health care reform package that allegedly will guarantee access to health care by requiring insurance companies to insure people with pre-existing conditions, reign in costs, ban unfair market practices, and insurance every child in Michigan by expanding the MiChild program. I’m not sure that this will do all that much to help cover all of the uninsured people in Michigan, but we’ll have to see.
  • Spurning Coal, Manistee Rides the Windspire – After rejecting a coal plant five years ago, Manistee is now a part of Michigan’s renewable energy future. Mariah Power is manufacturing its Windspire home wind turbine in the city.
  • Detroit juries losing color – In Wayne County, African-Americans are 42% of the population, yet they made up only 27% of the jury pool in 2004–that number has since fallen. Michigan Citizen has a great exploration of the issue.
  • Appeals court to hear Pinkney defense – This Michigan Citizen article is a good summary of the case of Reverend Edward Pinkney. Pinkney is a Benton Harbor community organizer who was convicted in 2007 on trumped-up charges of voter fraud. Pinkney has an upcoming court day here in Grand Rapids and supporters are invited to attend.
  • Hoekstra co-sponsors “Christian heritage” resolution – Representative Pete Hoekstra has taken a break from supporting torture in order to co-sponsor a resolution celebrating the United States’ so-called “Christian heritage” in Congress. It’s hardly a pressing issue and numerous historians have shown the resolution to be severely flawed.
  • Stabenow parties like it’s 1989 – Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow has joined with conservative Republican Senators to sponsor a resolution that seeks a federal amendment to ban flag burning. This has come up numerous times since the Supreme Court overturned state-level bans on the practice in 1989.
  • Amway celebrates golden anniversary with deep local roots and a global reach – This is the start of the Grand Rapids Press’ coverage of Amway’s 50th anniversary. As expected, this series will be full of a lot of hype with three days of major stories on the company. Surprisingly, this first article does focus a lot of attention on various lawsuits that the company has been a part of over the years–although the overall tone is positive. There was nothing in the article on how the fortunes made by Amway founders Jay Van Andel and Richard DeVos have been used to support conservative politics or how they have sought to use their money to influence public policy.
  • Twitter takes flight with lawmakers – The Detroit Free Press looks at politicians in Michigan who are using Twitter and how they use it. I suppose this is a good time to plug the MediaMouse.org Twitter account @mediamouse.

If we missed anything, let us know in the comments.

Obama Administration Pursuing Panama FTA

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The Obama administration is currently considering plans to pass the Panama Free Trade Agreement (Panama FTA). The agreement–which is a NAFTA-style free trade agreement–was negotiated under the Bush administration but was not passed before he left office.

Presently, it is being pushed by a number of large banks–many of which received government bailout money. Obama’s trade representative has indicated that the administration is supportive of the agreement.

This is unfortunate as during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama expressed opposition to NAFTA, saying that he was open to having that treaty “renegotiated” to expand environmental and labor protections.

Public Citizen’s Citizens Trade Campaign came out against the agreement, stating:

On behalf of our more than twelve million combined members, we are writing to express our strong opposition to the Panama “Free Trade Agreement” (FTA). This pact reflects the unsuccessful ending point of the past administration’s trade policy and should not serve as the starting point for the new Congress and administration.

Responding to broad public demand for change, more than one hundred candidates from both parties ran on platforms of trade reform in 2008. The past trade model has led to massive American job loss, downward pressure on wages, the loss of nearly 300,000 family farms and massive trade imbalances that have contributed to our current economic crisis. It has given broad, expansive new rights to foreign corporations to challenge our environmental and public health standards, and flooded the United States with unsafe imported food and products. And, it has devastated developing nations where millions of family farmers have been forced off their land and poverty, despair and desperation-driven mass migrations have grown.

Like many of the proposed free trade agreements in the Americas, the Panama FTA uses language that is almost directly replicated from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). This language is problematic and raises doubts about the extent to which environmental and labor standards will be enforced, limits access to medicines, and grants preferences to foreign investors that allow them to sue governments in order to create a more business-friendly climate.

Panama’s Offshore Tax Haven Status also an Issue

Public Citizen has also released a report criticizing the prospect of a free trade agreement with Panama because the country makes it easy for U.S.-based corporations to setup subsidiaries in Panama in order to avoid paying taxes. In fact, it is so easy to do so that Public Citizen’s dispatched one of its interns to give it a try. Here’s what she found:

Passage of the Panama FTA would not reign in these practices. In fact, Public Citizen argues it would take away regulatory provisions aimed at restricting the use of offshore tax havens.

More on the Panama FTA can be found on Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch website.

Headlines: Government, UAW Might Become Major GM Shareholders; 2008 Was Deadliest Year For Palestinians Since 1948

Democracy Now Headlines: Government, UAW Might Become Major GM Shareholders; 2008 Was Deadliest Year For Palestinians Since 1948

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Government Might Become Majority GM Shareholder

General Motors has offered its final plan to reorganize in an effort to avoid bankruptcy. The car company has proposed slashing bond debt, cutting over 21,000 more U.S. jobs and emerging as a nationalized automaker under majority control by the U.S. government. The proposed restructuring would also shut down GM’s Pontiac operations. As part of the restructuring, GM is asking the Treasury Department for an additional eleven point six billion dollars in loans, in addition to the fifteen point four billion it has already received.

GM CEO Fritz Henderson: “I do think that General Motors will remain a global corporation without a doubt, but I think there’s no question in my mind also that the nature of those global relationships will change.”

Henderson said GM would probably declare bankruptcy if the bondholders reject the terms. By the time it is finished, G.M. expects to have only 38,000 union workers and 34 factories left in the United States, compared with nearly 400,000 workers in more than 150 plants at its peak employment in 1970.

Report: UAW To Own 55% of Chrysler Under Restructuring Deal

There are major developments in the proposed restructuring of Chrysler. The car company and labor leaders have agreed to a tentative deal where the United Auto Workers union’s retiree health-care fund would become the majority shareholder of Chrysler in exchange for cutting in half what the automaker owes the health care trust.

WHO Raises Pandemic Threat Level Over Swine Flu Fears

The World Health Organization has raised its pandemic threat level one notch as more cases of swine flu become known. In Mexico officials say 149 people have died from influenza but only 26 of the deaths have been confirmed to be swine flu. Nearly 2,000 people have been hospitalized with serious pneumonia. In the United States, the Centers For Disease Control has doubles it s number of confirmed U.S. cases to 48. Cases have also been confirmed in Canada, Spain, Britain and Israel but no deaths have been reported outside Mexico.

Flu expert Dr. John McCauley: “I think we are facing the danger of pandemic for the following reasons. One, this is a new virus that humans have not seen before. We have not come across a virus exactly like that. We have seen other H1N1s but not this particular variant. And so it’s a new virus to which humans appear to have no significant immunity. Secondly, it is spreading human to human. And so these are the hallmarks of a virus that could become a pandemic virus.”

CDC Dismisses EU Travel Advisory

Mexico has responded to the outbreak by shutting down all schools nationwide for more than a week and placing limits on public gatherings. The European Union has urged travelers to avoid the United States and Mexico “unless it is very urgent for them.” Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control, criticized the EU travel warning.

Richard Besser: “Based on the situation in the United States right now, I think it is quite premature to be putting travel restrictions on people coming to the United States. We have 20 cases of swine flu, we’re doing active surveillance. So far we’ve seen one hospitalization.”

Researchers believe the outbreak of swine flu may have occurred near a Mexican factory pork farm partly owned by Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, the largest producer of hogs in the United States. At the United Nations, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon warned poor nations may be hit particularly hard by the flu outbreak.

Ban Ki-Moon: “The swine flu outbreak shows yet again that in our interconnected world no nation can deal with threats of such dimension on its own. Poor nations are especially vulnerable. They have been hit hard by other crisis this year-food, energy, the global economy, climate change. We must ensure that they are not also hit disproportionately hard by a potential health crisis.”

380 Same-Sex Couples Marry in Iowa

In Iowa, more than 380 same-sex couples applied for marriage licenses Monday following a state Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Dozens of couples held weddings Monday after being granted waivers of Iowa’s three-day waiting period.

Jennifer Waldron: “I’m actually quite overwhelmed right now with emotion which actually really surprises me. but just to have the validation from the public that we are in a loving and committed relationship and that it’s important.”

91 Disability Rights Activists Arrested Outside White House

Over 100 people were arrested in Washington on Monday during a series of unrelated demonstrations. 91 disability rights activists were arrested after members of the group ADAPT chained their wheelchairs to the White House fence. The protest was held to raise awareness of the Community Choice Act, pending legislation that they said would allow disabled individuals to use their Medicaid payments for community-based services.

Five Members of Congress Arrested At Sudanese Embassy

Five members of Congress were arrested Monday outside the Sudanese embassy during a demonstration condemning Sudan’s decision to expel 16 aid agencies from Darfur.

The arrested included Democrats John Lewis of Georgia, Keith Ellison on Minnesota, Lynn Woolsey of California, Donna Edwards of Maryland and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. They were charged with crossing a police line, a misdemeanor, and released.

Seven Greenpeace Activists Arrested

Also on Monday seven Greenpeace activists were arrested for scaling a construction crane and unfurling a banner with a picture of Earth and the message “Too big to fail.”

Blackwater Training Site in Illinois Picketed; 22 Arrested

In Mt. Carroll, Illinois, 22 people were arrested Monday at a protest outside a training site run by Xe, the company formerly known as Blackwater.

30,000 Pakistanis Flee Fighting in Northwest Region

In Pakistan as many as 30,000 people have fled Northwest Pakistan in recent days to escape fighting between the Taliban and Pakistani military. Al Jazeera reports civilians left their homes after the Pakistani military began their assault on Sunday against Taliban fighters in Lower Dir, near the Taliban-held Swat valley. The military action in Lower Dir comes weeks after the government allowed the Taliban to implement their interpretation of Islamic law in the neighboring Swat valley. Critics of Pakistan’s deal with fighters in Swat say that it has only emboldened the Taliban.

Sri Lanka Blocks UN Aid Mission

The Sri Lankan military has blocked a United Nations aid mission from entering the area where the Sri Lankan military continues to attack Tamil Tiger separatists. Some 50,000 civilians are believed to be trapped in the conflict zone. John Holmes, the UN humanitarian affairs chief, failed in his attempt to bring a halt to the fighting.

John Holmes: “I think our view is that the key point is when this conflict comes to an end, however it ends, I think it is much better if it ends without more civilian bloodshed, then there is a real need to address the political issues, to define solutions to the political problems which underlie all this, to react in a generous way to make sure that not only win the military victory but win the peace as well. Obviously that is the solution.”

Meanwhile Sweden’s foreign minister has been refused entry to Sri Lanka. Carl Bildt was due to visit Sri Lanka on a European mediating mission aimed at bringing about an immediate ceasefire between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE. On Sunday the Sri Lankan government rejected a Tamil Tiger call for a unilateral ceasefire.

Obama Admin Seeks Reversal of Mountaintop Mining Rule

The Interior Department said Monday it will try to overturn a Bush administration rule that made it easier for coal mining companies to dump mountaintop debris into valley streams. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he will ask the Justice Department to go to the courts to withdraw the Bush regulation and send it back to Interior to stop the policy.

Report: Israel Built 9,000 Homes in Occupied Territories Under Olmert

A new report has determined the Israeli government under Ehud Olmert built or issued bids for some 9,000 settlement homes for Israelis in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. The Israeli watchdog groups Peace Now and Ir Amim urged President Barack Obama to step in quickly and pressure Israel’s new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to halt further settlement expansion.

Group: 2008 Was Deadliest Year For Palestinians Since 1948

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights says more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed in 2008 in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, making it the deadliest year since Israel was founded in 1948. A total 860 Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops in Gaza and the West Bank. Another 161 Palestinians were killed in factional fighting.

Detained Iranian-American Journalist Continues Hunger Strike

The Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi has entered her second week of a hunger strike protesting her imprisonment in Iran. She was sentenced earlier this month to eight years of imprisonment this month on charges of spying for Washington. Her father, Reza Saberi, said she plans to continue her hunger strike until she is released. Roxana turned 32 on Sunday.

Conde Naste Closes Portfolio Magazine

And in media news, Conde Nast has decided to close the two-year-old magazine Portfolio. Meanwhile newly released statistics show paid weekday newspaper circulation has fallen seven percent over the past six months.

Michigan Utilities Seeking to Increase Electric Rates

Michigan’s two largest utility companies–Consumers Energy and Detroit Edison–are hoping for double-digit increases in electrical rates. The utilities are hoping for rate increases through a new state law that allows for rate increases to be automatically implemented if the Public Service Commission–a state regulatory agency–doesn’t rule on the requests within six months. Both utilities put in rate increase requests late last year.

Under the increase, average utility bills would rise significantly. For Consumers Energy, the average bill would go from $89 per month to $99. For Detroit Edison customers, the average bill would increase from $63 to $70.

Three organizations–the Michigan League for Human Services, the Michigan Catholic Conference, and the Area Agencies on Aging Association of Michigan–are urging the Public Service Commission to block the requests. The organizations say that the proposed increases would hurt the poor and vulnerable in Michigan who are already struggling due to the state’s high unemployment rate. Moreover, the organizations point out that the increases are not tied to plans to build new power plants or expand renewable energy.

Last year, the Michigan Public Service Commission approved rate increases that were less than a third of what the two utilities were seeking. Rates are also gradually going up for Michigan residents as a decades long policy of subsidizing residential rates is being phased out.

Recent Congress Members go from Capitol to Lobbying Firms

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Yesterday, USA Today reported that 16 of the 62 lawmakers who left Congress last year took jobs with lobbying firms.

In recent years, the so-called “revolving door” has received attention from watchdog groups and Congress itself. However, Public Citizen says the fact that these lawmakers are able to move into these jobs reflect “an utterly failed revolving-door restriction.”

Under current rules, former House members are barred from lobbying their former colleagues for a year after leaving office, while Senators must wait two years. However, nothing stops them from working for lobbying firms to advise clients on the Congressional process or how to obtain contacts with the administration. Similarly, they can work as state lobbyists. Public Citizen says, “They can’t call or visit a congressional office for a lobbying purpose but can do all the work on a lobbying campaign.”

According to Public Citizen, between 1998 and 2004, 43% of former lawmakers became lobbyists.