New York Times
WASHINGTON — Facing billions of dollars in possible cuts, advocates for the poor are resorting to some creative tactics to grab the attention of Congress: Getting lawmakers to try eating on $4.50 a day, just as some 46 million food-stamp recipients already do. From Miami to Milwaukee, lawmakers and rank-and-file supporters have taken up the “food stamp challenge” to draw attention to the program’s meager benefits as budget cuts loom. Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, had a scoop of tuna and a few lettuce leaves for lunch Thursday after scouring a Safeway grocery in her home district for $13.27 in bargains earlier in the week.
The lean diet “adds a human dimension to hunger and underscores for members the real risks,” said Ellen Vollinger, a lobbyist for the Food Research Action Council, a Washington advocacy group working with religious organizations to fight cuts in nutrition programs.
As the special bipartisan debt reduction committee begins its final weeks of deliberations, hundreds of outside interest groups are turning to a wide variety of lobbying tactics — from old staples like letter-writing campaigns and billboards to newer ones like the food stamp campaign — to ward off deep cuts.
Health care providers, worried about Medicaid cuts and other programs, have taken out big ads around Washington to make their case. Lobbyists for defense contractors have been meeting with Congressional staff members to warn of the threat to national security if weapons programs are slashed. Some farmers are anxious to avoid cuts in crop subsidies. And cities and counties warn of rising crime rates if federal financing for police, fire services and the like are curtailed.
While lobbying is an everyday occurrence in Washington, the debt committee’s work has drawn extraordinary scrutiny from outside groups because of the scope, speed and power of its work, making it a veritable full employment act for federal lobbyists. By Thanksgiving week, the committee must come up with at least $1.2 trillion in debt cuts across virtually all federal programs, and if it reaches a plan, the House and Senate must take it up on a simple up-or-down vote.
Moreover, the committee has been operating in unusual secrecy, cloistering itself for the most part. Smaller groups worry that their special interests may get short shrift in the rush to slash huge amounts of spending, while even a number of well-heeled corporate lobbyists complain that they have had difficulty getting any real time with the 12 committee members.
As a result, it is difficult to tell if the outside lobbying will have much of an impact.
“The face-to-face time has really been pretty minimal and more by happenstance,” said H. Stewart Van Scoyoc, who leads one of Washington’s largest lobbying shops. “They’re pretty well locked down and not taking a lot of meetings.
“Everybody’s sending letters. It does a little bit of good,” he said, “but I don’t think the members of the committee are spending a lot of time reading letters.”
Then, of course, there is the most lucrative of Washington lobbying traditions: the fund-raiser meet-and-greet, where lobbyists and executives shell out a few thousand dollars for a steak dinner at the restaurant Charlie Palmer or another watering hole near Capitol Hill in the hopes of buttonholing lawmakers.
But even that tradition seems to have fallen off a bit.
The committee’s members drew criticism from some outside ethics groups for continuing to take part in political fund-raisers after they were named to the high-profile spots in August.
New numbers released in October suggest that some members have heeded the criticism by slowing their fund-raising. But at least two of the six House members on the panel saw sharp upticks in the last three months: Representative Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who is co-chairman of the committee, took in more than $471,000, while Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, raised more than $153,000, according to an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington research group. Much of the money came from donors in financial services and other industries that have a direct stake in the committee’s work.
Possible changes in the nation’s health care payment system have emerged as a dominant issue before the committee. Indeed, with more than 400 outside groups and companies registered to lobby the panel, nearly 30 percent of the organizations — 118 in all — work in health care. The issue is also visible in the Union Station subway stop, a few blocks from the Capitol. It is dotted with large ads for the American Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes.
The ads, built around the theme “Care Not Cuts,” are part of a $4 million campaign that the association has begun in Washington and in committee members’ home states to warn against cutbacks in medical reimbursements.
At Holland & Knight, a major Washington law firm, Rich Gold, the leader of the lobbying practice, has about a dozen lobbyists working on the panel’s issues and putting out sometimes hourly alerts to about 50 clients with a stake in the outcome.
While his lobbyists have let committee staff members know about the impact of possible changes, like the risks of rushing a new corporate tax structure into place, he said the information has flowed largely in one direction. “They know our clients’ positions, but we’re not getting any view of where they’re heading,” he said.
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As Representative Speier prepared to eat her tuna and lettuce Thursday on her food stamps budget, she said she hoped that the committee members got the message one way or the other.
“It’d be nice if members of the committee tried to eat for $4.50 a day,” she said.
“We can’t take the most vulnerable in our population and stick the cuts to them,” she said. “We members of Congress live in a bubble. We get fed all the time around here, so eating like this for me has been a real eye-opener.”