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He’s a pain in the side of every lobbyist in town fretting about lobbying reform, but at age 68, Fred Wertheimer, president and chief executive of nonprofit government-watch groups Democracy 21 and the Democracy 21 Education Fund, is showing no signs of slowing down. He holds weekly meetings with other progressive groups including the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen, and the U.S. PIRG to discuss the lobby-reform agenda and shrinking the role of money in politics. A 30-year Washington veteran and former president of Common Cause, Wertheimer, a self-described lobbyist himself, sat down for lunch with Joe Crea of Legal Times at that venerable beehive of K Street dealings, The Palm Restaurant, to discuss the reform movement, prehistoric lobbying, and being linked to a character from the Star Wars movies.
LT: Is the new lobby-reform bill sufficient? Wertheimer: It’s a very strong bill, but there’s no perfection here. If you want to do perfection, don’t try it in the legislative process. There’s plenty more to do. We have to reform the ethics enforcement process. If this stuff is going to work in the long term, people have to think that the rules are going to be enforced.
LT: What’s your response to lobbyists who say reforms are unnecessary, since everyone involved in the most recent lobbying scandals have been prosecuted or are awaiting indictment? Wertheimer: I don’t buy that argument at all. You can’t rely on criminal enforcement of laws against members of Congress to protect the integrity of those decisions. When you create ethics rules and don’t enforce them, we’re in a Wild West situation. Members are the last people who would want to have the Justice Department in there on a weekly basis looking at criminal conduct.
LT: Lobbyists have complained that the new reform measures have simply taken the price of a $39 steak and made it $1,000, since they can only associate with members of Congress if they bring a campaign check. Wertheimer: Look, this isn’t about $39 steaks. Members shouldn’t have their bills picked up for them. It’s not about the cost of a dinner, but about this culture of entitlement that exists on the Hill. No one is saying that’s the view of everyone. But it’s floating around, and it’s unhealthy.
LT: How do you think lobbyists perceive you? Wertheimer: Who knows? In the business I’m in, when you go in [to Congress] and lobby, saying these rules aren’t good enough to protect the integrity of Congress, so you need to adopt rules that will stop you from doing things you are doing now, well, that creates an inherent tension. So you get people who get mad at you, and I’ve had a lot of people mad at me over the years.
LT: Do you have an ideal vision for the way the intersection of business and government should look? Wertheimer: My sense is, people buy into our representative system of democracy because they are willing to give other people the ability to make decisions that affect their lives and take the chance that they’ll get the best thinking of those people. You are not going to get perfection. You pass reforms, they work. You have to watchdog them. They start to break down, people start to push the envelope, and if there’s nothing on the other side, they keep pushing.
LT: So there is no end to this kind of work? Wertheimer: No. The idea of trying to use something to gain some influence, I’m sure, started in a cave, how many millions of years ago, with a club or something.
LT: Well, that’s certainly a more brutal form of influence. Wertheimer: Well, yes! I’m sure there’s stuff from Roman days over money giving too much influence in the Senate and corrupting the system. But our country, our citizens, we don’t buy it. People fight it. Which is why you can achieve reforms.
LT: You’ve been described by some as the Yoda of the lobby-reform movement. How does it feel to be pegged as a George Lucas character? Wertheimer: I love George Lucas characters, but I don’t know. If you are around a long time, you become distinguished, which means if someone looks at you, you have gray hair, you’re old, you’re distinguished.
LT: In a conversation with Tommy Boggs recently, your name came up. I’m curious, what are your discussions like with lobbyists? Wertheimer: I don’t have many conversations with lobbyists. Our roads don’t cross that much. I’ve known Tommy for many years.
LT: When you gathered early on with your coalition about the various lobby-reform proposals, were there non-negotiable items? Wertheimer: That’s not a decision to make at the beginning of the process. You have to be strong enough to realize that you may have to accept some things that are less than what you want in order to get an overall package, and you have to be strong enough to walk away from a bill if it’s so bad or missing critical elements, no matter what else is in it.
Working Lunch appears every other week in Legal Times .

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