Legal Washington sleaze: Lobbying for Putin

     Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. (RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service/AP Photo and Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

    Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. (RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service/AP Photo and Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

    Few Washington rituals are more loathsome than the spectacle of lobbyists fattening themselves like pigs at the trough – especially when those lobbyists are ex-lawmakers who’ve renounced public service for a career in profiteering; and, most especially, when those ex-lawmakers pocket hefty fees to lobby against the national interest of the United States.

    In nations far less forgiving than ours, that kind of thing might be considered treason. But in Washington – where government officials morph into lobbyists and vice versa, perpetually swinging through the revolving door – it’s standard operating procedure.

    Bear with me. You’re gonna love this one:

    We all know that the U.S. has been trying to undercut Vladimir Putin by imposing economic sanctions on Russia. One key Russian sector targeted for sanctions is banking. In July, as a rebuke to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, Gazprombank GBP was barred by the Treasury Department from inking any debt financing deals with U.S. institutions. Gazprombank GBP – a subsidiary of Russia’s third largest bank – is very displeased; in response, it has hired two American lobbyists to contest the sanctions, to plead their cause their case in Washington.

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    The lobbyists are former U.S. senators, Republican Trent Lott and Democrat John Breaux.

    According to Friday’s official filing, flagged by the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity, Lott and Breaux will use their connections, and their inside knowledge of “banking laws and regulations,” to help Putin’s bank. Business is business, and I bet the Russians pay very well. Lott and Breaux work at Squire Patton Boggs, an elite lobbying firm, and rest assured that the client’s fees will help swell the coffers.

    You may remember Trent Lott. He was once the Senate Republican leader; when he was on the Hill, he believed in using U.S. economic clout to enforce a moral foreign policy. In 1996, he voted to strengthen the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. In 1994, when his colleagues sought to end the U.S. economic embargo against Vietnam, he said no.

    But that was then. Lott went through the revolving door nearly a decade ago. No need for a moral compass anymore, much less any fealty to U.S. foreign policy – not when there’s real money on the table. The Russians get this. And surely they pay better than Ukraine. Why shouldn’t the lobbyists sell themselves to the highest bidder?

    Lott and Breaux, of course, are merely the tip of the iceberg. According to a study conducted by the watchdog group Public Citizen, roughly 43 percent of all members of Congress who left office between 1998 and 2005 stayed in town to become lobbyists. And according to another watchdog group, the Sunlight Foundation, former government officials – congressional and White House aides, in addition to lawmakers – comprised 44 percent of all Washington lobbyists registered in 2012.

    These are people from both parties, lobbying in most cases for the same deep-pocketed special interests that they once sought to regulate. And sometimes their flexible consciences flex even further – like when they take fat fees to lobby for totalitarian nations that torture and repress their own people. One guy I knew many years ago, who started out as a Ralph Nader activist and liberal congressman, wound up in 2011 as a Washington lobbyist for the Egypt regime that tortured political prisoners by applying electroshock to their genitals and tongues.

    So let’s not get too incensed about Lott and Breaux. It’s perfectly legal to lobby amorally, to work for Putin against the interests of the United States. It’s business as usual, and if you want to get all angsty about right and wrong, then hey, there’s always church on Sunday.

    But is it any wonder that the public holds Washington in such low esteem?



    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.


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