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Lobbying by Stealth

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There are two interesting current additions to the annals of political influence, with its focus on quiet issue lobbying as opposed to the campaign contributions that are much more obvious and less effective.

The first is an effort to put paper back into government, undermining efforts at cheaper electronic communications, unsurprisingly funded by the paper industry. The second is an attempt to popularize Obamacare by smoothing the way it is portrayed on stage and screen.

The logic of much lobbying is a two-step process. It begins with the golf aphorism that every act leaves someone happy and someone sad. Among the sad are potential clients. Typically, there are two groups of sad people: one poor but sympathetic (perhaps people who've been denied a prescription drug they're comfortable with because it has been found no more effective than cheaper options) and the other rich (perhaps the pharmaceutical firms making the expensive drugs) and willing to spend to protect profits.

The former then become poster children in campaigns funded by the latter.

Consumers for Paper Options is a lobby operation funded by the paper industry working to preserve options for the millions of Americans -- overwhelmingly poor who ordinarily have little impact on the political process -- who aren't helped by the move toward electronic documents because they lack Internet access (for drug warnings or projected Social Security benefit statements) or bank accounts (making access to government payments, including Social Security, more difficult).

You don't have to be a tree hugger to acknowledge that the trend opposed by Consumers for Paper Options has made life a lot easier for many of us and saved billions of dollars in printing and mailing costs, a painful change for those in the printing and mailing industries.

Whether these changes are in the public interest is an open question. A visit to the CPO website reports research suggesting that Americans are wary of government efforts to go paperless and an effort to extend the life of paper savings bonds. It has enlisted a bipartisan group of legislators, who represent districts where paper has clout, to promote legislation that sometimes becomes law.

It is easy to call CPO a special interest group with a selfish agenda. But it is also true that their efforts may make life somewhat easier for a minority lacking political power that would otherwise be easily ignored. Finding a balance is what politics is all about.

The upcoming Obamacare event for screenwriters is typical of a more indirect approach -- an effort to create public opinion that then impacts the political process.

Martin Kaplan, director of USC's Norman Lear Center, is spending a half-million-dollar grant from the California Foundation, created as a price of allowing California's Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans to shed their nonprofit status, to educate screenwriters about Obamacare. Given the foundation's support of Obamacare and Kaplan's past service writing speeches for Vice President Mondale, it was assumed that this was an effort to create a more supportive environment for the legislation.

Criticism of the effort as a propaganda attempt has led sponsors to construe it as a fact-finding initiative. "Writers can have any point of view they want," says Kaplan, who's hosting a New York event this week where the panel will consist entirely of supporters of the legislation (for the record, I'm supportive too and have had infrequent friendly dealings with Kaplan in years past).

The effort brings to mind the movie-fed blowback to managed care in the late 1990s. Take a look at As Good As It Gets, a Jack Nicholson-Helen Hunt effort where a subtheme is the insensitivity of health insurance plans.

If the California Foundation's money is well spent, we'll enjoy movie messages in the years ahead suggesting that we're all better off living in a society where everyone has affordable health insurance.

That's the way the quiet lobbying game is played. It works best when no one looks carefully at the sausage-making machinery. It offers a stark contrast to the money game where contributors present themselves as 800-pound gorillas who are willing to spend as much as it takes to make things happen their way.

A sympathetic character in a movie or the victim of a bad drug reaction who was unable to access the latest FDA warning posted solely on the internet can be more effective tools for actually getting the job done.