The ‘fourth branch’ has usurped the Fourth Estate

In case you didn’t notice, we ran nine letters to the editor last Sunday, all denouncing the congressional “supercommittee’s” failure to cut the budget deficit. The letters expressed a range of negative emotions, from surliness to sadness over the functionaries’ inability to function.

One letter that didn’t arrive in time for the Nov. 27 Your Turn is published today. It’s from Jim Sims, who has what I think is a good idea — that journalists should cover the Washington, D.C., lobbyists as well as we cover the political scene.

Sims calls the D.C. lobby an “unconstitutional … fourth branch” of government that influences lawmaking and whose “interests are most often contrary to the public interests.”

Ironically, Sims’ name for the lobby is similar to “fourth estate” — journalism — which is a constitutional right (First Amendment) and serves as a check and balance on the other three estates — the judiciary, the legislative and the executive branches of government.

Yet it becomes clearer each year that lobbying is usurping journalism in affecting governance. Some 370 former members of Congress and hundreds more ex-Capitol Hill staffers now lobby this Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics ( on the Internet).

More ominous, I think, the CRT says 128 former lobbyists now work inside this Congress, including on the staffs of six of the 12 members of the “supercommittee.”

This is not breaking news. And lobbyists are experts who have a right to help craft laws. But does Joe the Plumber have a seat at the table? Hell no!

For example, in the heat of the 2009 health care reform, the Washington Post reported that former Reps. Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., who battled regularly as leaders of the House, were united in protecting the profits of a New Jersey drug-maker (and against Grandpa).

How’s the money? Ex-Rep. Billy Tauzin, who was a Democrat before he switched to the GOP, earns $2.5 million a year to ensure the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America is well-positioned, as it was when Congress and President Bush paid top dollar for Medicare Part D drugs in 2006.

Could it be that local Rep. Charlie Gonzalez is headed down this road? In announcing last weekend that he’s retiring, Gonzalez, who earns $174,000 a year as a congressman, said that “financially, I would like to be productive and have the resources to make a better life.”

I expect the Express-News will report where Charlie lands, but will the fourth estate — as Jim Sims suggests — keep an eye on this “fourth branch”?

The easy answer is, yes, we should, and we do occasionally. The reality is we don’t have the resources to do it by ourselves, all the time. The Express-News has two full-time staffers, Peggy Fikac and Gary Scharrer, in Austin and just one, Gary Martin, in D.C.

Another remedy is for the general public to get off the couch and participate in democracy. Find out how to influence legislation, read the papers, browse the Internet, look up your representatives’ address and fill his (or her) inbox.

Another reality — also noted in Sims’ good letter — is the Supreme Court, in a ruling in 2010, said Washington can no longer limit political spending by corporations. The New York Times called the decision a “new weapon” for lobbyists. “A lobbyist can now tell any elected official: If you vote wrong, my company, labor union or interest group will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising against your re-election.”

In the vernacular of 2011, sometimes democracy sucks.

This column was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News on Dec. 3, 2011.
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