Far too often in Washington, policy decisions are influenced by big money -- wealthy corporations spend millions on lobbying, public relations, and campaign contributions to get their way. Big money helps explain why your cell phone and cable TV bills are so expensive, why small investors are still unprotected from Wall Street abuses, why taxpayers subsidize incomprehensible waste, like the $33 billion a year we spend on for-profit colleges that often ruin students' lives.
But one of the worst affronts to our democracy, and one of the worst dangers to our world, is the way that dirty energy companies -- oil, gas, coal -- have mercilessly lobbied and spread misinformation to prevent action on climate change. It's bad because it's obvious that extreme weather is already producing the hottest years on record and wrecking communities and killing people in violent storms. It's bad because there is overwhelming agreement among scientists that the burning of fossil fuels is helping to cause this global warming, yet little is being done to change our ways. To add insult to injury, though, consider this: Some of the most powerful lobbyists working to deny these problems and block solutions were trained and equipped to be lobbyists on the taxpayers' dime.
What I mean is that members of Congress, congressional staff members, and other federal officials are increasingly using their tenures as paid public servants to qualify themselves to be lobbyists for corporations, including dirty energy firms. They learn the policy issues, the legislative process, the art of back room deals while receiving government salaries. They build ties in the government office suites, the government dining room, and the government gym, with the poor saps who decide to stay behind in government jobs. Then they turn around and reward the taxpayers who financed their training by walking through the revolving door -- by selling themselves to corporations that often trash the public interest. Even worse, they sometimes appear in public forums as wise public statesmen, such as on energy issues, without disclosing relevant conflicts of interests, such as that they are paid advocates for oil, gas, and coal companies.
Exhibit A: Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Republican of Mississipi, who gained his Washington skills and status over 40 years on the federal payroll -- essentially, you built him -- and now lobbies for companies that are generally part of the problem, not the solution, on energy and climate change.
Lott is a master at getting paid to represent dirty energy companies in private offices while posing in public as an energy expert seeking sensible bipartisan solutions. Yesterday Lott took that effort to a new level by sponsoring a purported blue ribbon commission report that reads more like an energy industry strategy document.
After working five years as a congressional staff member in Washington, Lott served 35 years in Congress, 16 in the House and 19 in the Senate. He became the Republican leader in 1996 but stepped down under pressure in 2002 after praising Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist run for the White House.
Lott abruptly resigned from the Senate in December 2007, less than two years into his fourth Senate term. Some pundits speculated that Lott chose that moment to resign because of a looming deadline -- Senators still around after the start of 2008 would be covered by a new ethics law that prohibits former Members of Congress from lobbying for two years after leaving office. Lott responded that the new law "didn't have a big role in that decision." OK, not a big role.
Within 20 days of his resignation, Lott had formed the Breaux Lott Leadership Group with former Democratic Senator John Breaux (LA). The firm has represented a large number of energy companies, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Entergy, General Electric, National Propane Gas Association, Plains Exploration, Shell Oil, and America"s Natural Gas Alliance. In 2010, Breaux Lott sold itself to mega-lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which itself also represents energy companies including ATP Oil & Gas and Total.
Breaux Lott also brings in millions lobbying for clients in the telecommunications, pharmaceutical, defense, aerospace, and other industries -- AT&T, Boeing, Goldman Sachs, FedEx, etc. In addition, Lott is a resolute paid advocate for the aforementioned toxic for-profit college industry; although his public excuses for the industry aren"t very persuasive, Republic Report has him on camera explaining how he charms his former Senate colleagues one by one into backing his clients.
At the Breaux Lott Leadership Group, "leadership" is the euphemism for lobbying and influence-peddling. Its website explains that the firm "has policy expertise in all energy issue areas - ranging from oil and gas exploration to working with high-level officials of the Administration, Department of Energy and Mineral Management Service. Our access to energy policy makers in Congress is one of our strongest attributes.... Senators Breaux's and Lott's unmatched network in the area of energy related matters." Translation: These guys made a lot of friends when they were senators. Now their friends can be your friends, for a fee.
Lott has leveraged not just his congressional relationships but also his congressional cash. He has drawn from the $1.3 million left over in his Senate campaign coffers to make contributions to current Members of Congress, even while he's sought to influence Congress as a lobbyist.
But while he touts his insider access in selling his services to attract energy industry clients, Lott also puts himself forward as a wise leader ready to solve America's energy challenges. He has appeared jointly to discuss energy policy issues with his business partner, Senator Breaux, on Fox News and on MSNBC, where Lott called for "more drilling." In neither case did the former senators, or the networks presenting them, disclose that both men are paid lobbyists for energy companies.
Lott is also the co-chair, with former Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), of the Energy Project Board at a Washington think tank called the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC). Last year the National Journal reported that the former senators "are working together on a blueprint for energy legislation" and that "their effort could gain traction: Both are held in high regard by their former colleagues, and the BPC is a serious player in the energy debate."
In touting this initiative, Lott told the National Journal that he now drives a Mini Cooper and claimed to have cut his utility bill by making his "old house" more energy efficient. He also seemed to acknowledge that climate change is real. But he counseled for caution and consensus on addressing the problem, rather than the kind of determined effort suitable to an urgent challenge. Lott's advice to President Obama? "He needs to do it without throwing out there things that are controversial at the gate. Don't be putting out markers saying, 'We need this, that, or the other.'" But when it comes to producing energy, Lott takes a more insistent approach; in a TV appearance with Dorgan, Lott said, "I want produce more of everything. I want more oil, more gas, more coal, more hydro, more nuclear. I'm willing to look at alternative fuels and all that...."
BPC released the Lott-Dorgan energy report at an event on Wednesday. It finds that "climate change is a significant issue" -- but then does nothing with that insight. Instead, this bipartisan report calls for acceleration of oil drilling offshore and on federal lands, as well as implementing new standards to allow expansion of the hazardous practice of underground hydrofracking for natural gas. The report includes no recommendation to cap or tax the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
That the Lott-Dorgan-BPC energy report is tilted toward the dirty energy industries, and expresses no urgency regarding climate change, should not come as a surprise. Like Lott, Democrat Dorgan is an energy lobbyist, the co-chair of Government Relations at the firm Arent Fox, where he represents oil companies including Denbury Resources and Noble Energy. And the Bipartisan Policy Center seems to make a specialty of presenting politicians-turned-corporate-lobbyists as advocates for sensible, moderate solutions to policy issues.
Lott's fealty to his paid corporate clients goes so far that he has even incensed his fellow conservatives. As a senator, Lott aggressively opposed the Law of the Sea Treaty, which addresses the rights and obligations of countries in the world's oceans. Senator Lott claimed that the treaty would undermine U.S. sovereignty and hurt the U.S. economy. But lobbyist Lott was hired by Shell Oil to push for Senate ratification of the treaty, a reversal that drew a rebuke from the right-wing Heritage Foundation.
In short, it appears that Trent Lott sells his influence, his reputation, his principles, and, sometimes, his responsibility, including to address the urgent climate change issue. And who built this lobbyist? We did.
This article also appears on Republic Report.