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The Origins of Lobbying and Life

     The word "lobbyist" has become a pejorative in Washington, and at the rate things are going it will someday be synonymous with "criminal." That's one reason why lobbyists like to mention the fact that what they do is specifically protected by the Constitution. You remember that little thing we call the First Amendment: Congress won't make any laws prohibiting "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances". Okay, so it doesn't say, "petition the Government for questionable tax breaks and regulatory relief for their corporate clients," but close enough.

   Everyone knows that there's too much money in politics. And hardly anyone likes it. The politicians don't like it, and, believe it or not, many of the lobbyists don't like it. If you're a politician you have to grovel for money, constantly. But if you're a lobbyist, you have to hand it over. Just maxing out on your own contributions isn't enough, because often you will be on the hooks to raise money from others. They put you down for a certain amount, raised by a certain date. It's a big shake-down. A top Republican lobbyist told me recently that he'd like to see a law passed forbidding any registered lobbyist from donating to a political campaign. For one thing, it would save him a lot of money. Tom Delay aggressively pushed the Pay For Play rule. To be a lobbyist in Washington you have to whip out the checkbook faster than Eastwood drawing his revolver in those spaghetti westerns. 

  The big news, obviously, is that Jack Abramoff, man in black, has pled guilty to a number of felonies, and has started cooperating in a sweeping probe of Washington corruption. Congressman Duke Cunningham wore a wire before his own guilty plea. The mandarins of Washington are gulping Paxil by the fistful. But simply catching the flamboyant criminals like Abramoff and Cunningham won't be enough to reform the Washington game. Even the legal stuff -- what they call business-as-usual -- has to be reformed.

    And that's not going to be easy. For one thing, it's hard to keep the public's attention. Look at this past week: Abramoff was a big story, but there were so many other things happening, including the mine tragedy in West Virginia, Sharon's medical crisis, and new eruptions of bloodshed in Iraq. Today we have the Alito hearings, and the vice president was rushed to the hospital. Even a news junkie may find it hard to keep track of Russ Feingold's latest proposal for lobbying reform.

   There are some fundamental obstacles to change, including that darn Constitution. The Supreme Court has ruled that money is speech; George Will didn't make that up. And the sums of money flowing through Washington -- the subject of vigorous legislative maneuvering and attendant lobbying -- are enormous. The mere tweaking of a tax code when no one's looking can save companies and industries many millions of dollars. The complexity of legislation is such that no single person can keep track of what's actually inside one of these fat appropriations bills. Earmarks accumulate by the thousands. Legislation is literally passed in the middle of the night, when only a handful of lawmakers and staffers (and lobbyists) are still in the building. When a crisis hits, like Katrina, lawmakers are so desperate to do something quickly that they will call a lobbyist and say, in essence, "Write this bill for us." They take legislation right off the shelf at the Lobbyist Supermarket.

   Yes, lobbying is legal and constitutionally protected. But most of us don't have a lobbyist. Who's yours?

   [Continuing now with previous topic, the origin of life: ScienceTim writes, "The oldest microfossils that are generally agreed to represent the presence of microbial life are about 3.7 billion years old." Actually, it's hard to find anything in this field that isn't controversial. There's some evidence of chemical signatures of life in Greenland rocks dating to about 3.85 billion years ago, but it's ambiguous. When I wrote my aliens book, I argued that the early appearance of life on Earth cuts both ways in the debate about the possible existence and abundance of extraterrestrial intelligence. You can argue that a very early appearance of life on Earth suggests that life will probably appear fairly quickly on any rocky planet; but it also means that it may take a very long time for life to evolve from something simple to something that we'd call intelligent. (This is all extrapolating from just one example, of course.) When I researched the book, Bill Schopf held the record for the oldest fossils, having published findings that the Apex chert in Australia contains fossils from 3.5 billion years ago. But the Hazen books describes in detail the more recent face-off between Schopf and Martin Brasier, who claims the Schopf fossils are just random inorganic blobs.  Hazen doesn't really take sides, but he writes: "Appearances can be deceiving. Lots of inorganic processes produce round specks and enigmatic squiggles. It's all too tempting to see what you want to see in an ancient rock."]

By Joel Achenbach  |  January 9, 2006; 7:39 AM ET
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