February 13, 2014
Guest: Eric Lipton
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Corporations work hard to influence Congress and public opinion. My guest, Eric Lipton, is an investigative reporter for the New York Times who's been writing about how corporations work in opaque ways to shape debates on issues ranging from whether we should raise the minimum wage to whether high-fructose corn syrup is less healthy than sugar.
He's written about the revolving door between Congress and lobby groups. He's exposed nonprofit think-tanks and consumer groups that are really funded by industry groups that want to present information that backs up the industry position. He's also written about how some corporations have become concerned that the Republican Party has drifted too far to the right.
Eric Lipton, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You cover lobbying for the New York Times, but if I were to give your beat a name, judging from what you've been writing lately, the beat would be the secret corporate influence on American policy and public opinion. Does that work for you?
ERIC LIPTON: Yeah, I mean I sort of think of it as self-interested parties trying to influence the system to their own benefit. And that's sort of like what I'm looking for when I think about what's an interesting story.
GROSS: So one of the things you've been investigating is how corporate lobby groups are funding research that will influence both lawmakers and popular opinion. And one of the ways they're doing that is by funding think-tanks. And give us an example of a think-tank that is funded by a lobby group, although you wouldn't know that if you were reading the research that the think-tank turned out.
LIPTON: Well, there's - for example, there's a group called the Employment Policies Institute, which puts out reports that examines what would happen if we raise the minimum wage, what impact will it have on unemployment and on poverty in the United States. And if you look at the reports, they're very academic-looking, and they say they're, you know, a nonpartisan research organization.
But in fact, as you learn more about the group, you find out that one of their main supporters financially is the restaurant industry and that when you look at the reports...
GROSS: And the restaurant industry opposes raising the minimum wage.
LIPTON: Right. They find that it would be sort of hurtful to their bottom line and perhaps would reduce employment. So they're actively lobbying Congress to try to avoid legislation that would increase the minimum wage. And the thing is, when you look at their reports, there's just this consistency to them that they again and again are putting out reports that make a similar point.
And then their reports turn up on the National Restaurant Association website, which then uses their reports to kind of reinforce their opposition to the legislative proposal. So it becomes this sort of Washington echo chamber where the think-tank makes an argument, then the organization that is trying to block the legislation then points to the think-tank as an authoritative source, and it buttresses its argument and tries to, you know, modestly change public opinion and perhaps modestly impact some of the moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats whose votes are still potentially up in the air.
GROSS: So the lobby group funds the think-tank, the think-tank turns out research that supports the lobby group's point of view. The lobby group quotes the think-tank as being impartial.
GROSS: Now, in the Employment Policies Institute, the group that you mentioned that turns out research that opposes raising the minimum wage, they're actually directly connected to a PR firm led by somebody named Richard Berman. The PR firm is called Berman and Company. And this is an interesting group because they actually have created several, you know, think-tanks and, you know, consumer groups that are created because they're funded by a special interest.
LIPTON: For the most part. I mean there's, you know, the Center for Consumer Freedom. You know, there's ActivistCash.com. There's MercuryFacts.com, Teachers Union Facts, Employment Freedom Org, IncomeTaxFacts.org. There's, you know, more than a dozen websites or nonprofit groups that Berman and Company has set up that then typically have had some industry funding and then make arguments that are opposing sort of what you would consider, you know, consumer groups, and they become a part of the public debate.
GROSS: So these groups that appear on the surface to be activist groups or consumer groups are actually being funded by corporate interests with the intention of affecting public opinion or Congress. And the money doesn't go directly to the groups; it's funneled through this PR firm.
LIPTON: Yeah, I mean actually often it goes directly to the groups, and then it's paid back to the PR firm because the donations come through the nonprofit. But because you make a donation to the nonprofit, the IRS does not require that it be disclosed. So the nonprofits report, when they report what's called a 990 IRS tax form, they have to report the total amount of donations they took in and the amount that they spent, and generally what they spend it on, but they don't have to disclose who their donors are.
GROSS: You actually went to visit the research director of the Employment Policies Institute, and what did you find about the address of the Employment Policies Institute?
LIPTON: Yeah, I was - you know, set up an interview with the research director. I got the address of his office. I went to the eighth floor of the building on Vermont Avenue, like four blocks from the White House. The elevator opens, and it's Berman and Company. And I go in and, you know, there's a bunch of awards on the wall, advertising awards, public relations awards that Berman and Company has won for its work, you know, doing ad campaigns on behalf of various industry groups.
And so I didn't see any evidence at all that there was an Employment Policies Institute office. And in fact when I started to interview the people there, they explained that there are no employees at the Employment Policies Institute and that all the staff there works for Berman and Company, and then they sometimes are just detailed to the various think-tanks and various consumer groups that he operates out of his office.
And he bills them, sort of like a law firm would bill various clients.
GROSS: So in looking at the minimum wage debate, is there a think-tank on the left that's taking the other point of view, that raising the minimum wage is an important thing for the economy and for workers? And if so, who's funding that think-tank?
LIPTON: Yeah, there's another group, a very similar name. It's hard to avoid getting them confused. This one's called the Economic Policy Institute instead of the Employment Policies Institute. And the Economic Policy Institute, you go to their website, and every article you can see is, you know, the case for raising the minimum wage, more than 600 economists endorse the $10.10 minimum wage, which is the higher level.
The minimum wage is not enough to keep workers out of poverty. But then, you know, as you dig down into their website, and you go to their annual report, and you look through who the contributors are, I found more than 20 labor unions that are among their major contributors. And the organization told me that 30 percent of their money does, in fact, come from labor unions.
And again, I mean they argue just like the Employment Policies Institute argues, that their academic research is not in any way influenced by who makes contributions and that it's peer-reviewed in some cases and then in fact published in academic journals, some of their work, both of them do that on occasion, and that they are just, you know, doing good data-based research, and then they issue their conclusions.
But the consistency of, you know, the one from the labor-union-funded keeps saying that raise the minimum wage, and the one from the restaurant industry and other corporate, you know, says it's a bad idea, don't do it. You know, it's just - there's a correlation that seems unavoidable.
GROSS: Does the Economic Policy Institute, the liberal economic think-tank, do they actually have an office? Do they actually have, like, independent researchers who aren't members of a PR group?
LIPTON: Yeah, it's a very different organization. They have an office. They have a very large staff. Their staff is, you know, quite a number of, you know, economists with very, you know, good, good reputations. And, you know, so it's not as much of a slight of hand. They are a real organization that does put out reports, and it's an organization that probably has greater influence in Washington.
But that said, they get funding from - of a place that correlates with the message they generally project.
GROSS: So as a reporter, when you are looking at research, and the research comes out of a think-tank, how do you weigh that, and what do you want to know about the think-tank before quoting somebody who's done research for it?
LIPTON: I mean, it depends on the think-tank. And there are some that are - the results of their reports are less predictable and therefore, you know, less prone to be influenced by the funding source, you know, or to echo what they think the funding source might want. But you know, again, you know, the key to all of this is transparency.
I mean in the case of the left, you know, leaning group, the Economic Policy Institute, they do at least publish an annual report that lists all their donors. With the Employment Policies Institute, run by Berman and Company, they don't disclose who all their donors are. And so, you know, I think transparency, it's the same thing with campaign finance in Washington, and part of the reason that sort of the whole money in politics has become sort of so kind of potentially damaging to society is that so much money goes into politics now that you don't know where it comes from.
And there's a similar thing with the kind of research institutions. There are quite a number of them in Washington that don't disclose their donor base. So it's hard to be able - you can't really evaluate, you know, so who might be potentially influencing the way that they're thinking or at least asking them to have an outcome that will please the donors.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Lipton. He's an investigative reporter for the New York Times who writes about lobbying and the influence of corporations not only on Congress but also on public opinion.
So one of the things you've been writing about lately is the revolving door between Congress and lobby groups. And you had a recent article focusing on congressional staffers, not on the lawmakers themselves but on their staffers. And there are laws that are supposed to prevent congressmen or their staffers from going right from Congress to joining a lobby group. What are those laws designed to prevent? What's the problem?
LIPTON: The problem is if you have relationships and special information, and you can perhaps leave one day and the next day come back and, you know, A) cash in on that, on those relationships and information, and B) potentially influence the process in an inappropriate way because your relationships are so strong, and the level of information is so high.
So essentially there's a cooling-off period in which generally the senior employees of Congress and the federal government at large are supposed to not be able to go back and lobby their former associates for one year. And so that there's - so there's a little time that passes and that they - they don't just essentially cash in on their connections.
So one example of the ways in which staffers get around the one-year ban is that in the House of Representatives the ban frequently only applies to a small circle of people that you immediately work with. For example, if you work with a chief of staff for a lawmaker, the ban only applies to the office that you worked in, not the committee that the lawmaker served on.
If you work for the leadership of the House of Representatives, you can lobby almost any committee in the House of Representatives or any other member of the House of Representatives. You just can't lobby the leadership. And so the ban is very narrowly crafted in the House of Representatives, unlike in the Senate, it's a much broader ban.
And so you can leave one day and register to lobby the next day and lobby all kinds of people that you knew very well and worked with frequently in the House of Representatives in a way that seems to evade the intent of the ban.
GROSS: Now, there's a salary cap in this ban too that's supposed to prevent staffers from coming back immediately as lobbyists. But they get around that too. Can you explain that?
LIPTON: Yeah, the salary cap is $130,000 currently, and so there are some staffers who told us that they might keep their salary, if they know they're about to leave, and they're close to that 130 cap, you know, at say 129, and that they may, you know, seek to avoid actually getting a raise to go into the 130 figure so that they - if they're planning on leaving so that - because they're much more marketable to a lobbying firm if they can immediately go back and lobby their former colleagues.
And if you're below the 130 cap, you have no restrictions at all in the House of Representatives. The next day you can leave and you can lobby literally any member of the House or any staffer. You're what's called uncovered. Again, in the Senate it's different. If you have - it doesn't matter what your salary is in the Senate. If you leave, you're not allowed to lobby the people in the office that you formerly worked for, even if you're uncovered.
So the Senate rules are broader, and therefore they're harder to evade.
GROSS: Is one of the concerns here that if you know you can come back as a lobbyist, as a high-paid, probably, lobbyist, that you're going to be more sympathetic to the lobby group while you're in Congress or while you're an aide to a congressman or to a committee?
LIPTON: I haven't heard as much sort of suggestion of that. I think that, you know, the advantage that having a former aide as your lobbyist brings you is that, I mean, you know, I'm hearing - I frequently hear stories about how, say a bank executive is called to testify. You know, often that bank executive knows the questions they're going to be asked, and they are able to essentially be coached on those questions because the lobbyist who used to work for the committee will approach the committee and say, you know, what are you going to ask, and ask his former buddy.
And his buddy will say here's what my boss is going to ask your executive. And then the question gets back to the executive, and the executive is completely prepared for the questions and, you know, and is able to appear very poised. I mean, similarly, the former staffer can actually draft provisions that are going to go into law and present that language to their buddy who works at the House, the Committee on Financial Services, and say, you know, we were just working on this piece of legislation together. I think this is a good idea to change this provision, and here's the language and how I think it should be changed.
And we found instances where, in fact, you know, whole sections of bills were crafted by lobbyists who were former aides. So there's - you know, the relationship is actually quite important for the lobbyist. And the thing that's interesting is if you look at the overall number of lobbyists who are former government officials, it's increased tremendously in the last 15-or-so years.
The bulk of - almost half of all lobbyists in Washington today are former government officials. It used to be a much smaller percentage.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Lipton. He's an investigative reporter for the New York Times. He covers lobbying. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Lipton. He's an investigative reporter for the New York Times. His focus is lobbying, and he's been writing a lot of articles about how corporate money, how lobby groups are affecting public opinion and what lawmakers do.
You've been writing about how lobby groups sometimes pay for trips for congressmen. What are the potential ethical questions that raises?
LIPTON: Yeah, this is another really interesting area. So you know, Congress passed legislation that made it illegal for lobbyists to give gifts to lawmakers. You know, it seems an obvious thing you'd want to do; you don't want a lobbyist to give, you know, something of value to a lawmaker in exchange for, you know, legislation or some other favor.
So therefore, you know, you can't travel to Vail and go skiing if the lobbyist pays the bills. But the way that lawmakers do it is that they have a fundraising event in Vail or Park City or in, you know, in Bermuda or in Puerto Rico or in Las Vegas, in many other destinations that people would, you know, love the opportunity to travel to.
And they present it as a campaign fundraising event, and you know, maybe 50 or 60 different lobbyists fly there, and they make contributions of somewhere between $2,500 and $5,000, and they would be larger, but there are actually limits on how much they can give, and then the money is collected, and that money is used to pay for the catering bills for these events and the hotel bills and the airfare bills and even sometimes the ski lift bills for the lawmakers.
So the lawmakers', you know, trips to these resort destinations have been subsidized by the lobbyists, but it's not an illegal gift because it went through their campaign accounts. And so, I mean I went on the first weekend of the year, I flew to Park City, Utah, where Senator Kelly Ayotte was having a fundraising event at, you know, these exclusive resort destinations.
She stayed at this beautiful hotel. You left the hotel and walked out and went skiing. And she, you know, went skiing the morning that I was there. She then went to a luncheon and told the lobbyists and the crowd, you know, I'd love it if you want to join me for a run. And this is the kind of access that lobbyists really crave, an opportunity to take a ride up a ski lift with a U.S. senator to chit-chat with her, not necessarily to make a hard pitch to her but to build a relationship with her so that, you know, the next time comes around that they want to try to influence something, that they can call up her chief of staff and say, oh yeah, you know, that was a great ski trip, wasn't that fun.
And so - and then that same weekend in Vail, you had five members of the House of Representatives who were having their own, you know, weekend getaway with dozens of lobbyists. Many of those guys actually run the Energy and Commerce Committee. Some of the lobbyists there were from electric utilities that wanted legislation introduced that would prohibit the federal government from designating coal ash as a hazardous waste.
And for example, Ed Whitfield, who was one of the lawmakers that was there in Vail, was a co-sponsor of that legislation. And one of the lobbyists that was there was from PPL, an electric utility that supported that legislation that would, you know, save them money by avoiding coal ash being designated as hazardous.
And so, you know, they both benefit there. The electric utility is able to say thank you to the lawmaker. The lawmaker is able to get a nice weekend at the Four Seasons resort in Vail, Colorado, which is quite a beautiful place. I didn't actually stay there. I stayed near the airport.
GROSS: Is there any way of knowing for sure if these getaways actually directly affect congressional votes or legislation that's introduced?
LIPTON: I don't think that they do in such an explicit way. It's really about building relationships. And it's - you know, the day that I got to Vail, the first event started at I think 5:30, and it was nearly midnight at the bar at the Four Seasons hotel, and one of the lawmakers, Adrian Smith, was there - well, maybe 11 o'clock, I don't want to exaggerate - and he was still, he was at the lounge.
He was not drinking. He was there chatting with some of the lobbyists. So you had, you know, basically six hours of access. They had had a reception. They had a dinner in a private room. Then they moved over to the hotel lounge. And there's a relationship-building that goes on in that setting that you just, that lobbyists, you know, really they die for because, you know, when you're back in Washington then and you call up the chief of staff and you say my client, you know, has this issue, they want to - we'd love to work with you on it, you have - you know, you know them.
Maybe their kids have come along on the trip. You know their kids. You just have built a rapport that you just wouldn't get in Washington if you just went to the restaurant for the, you know, the cocktail party reception, in an out the lawmaker goes. So, you know, I don't - no one is, I think, asking them vote this way at that event, but it's all about maintaining and building relationships that then do help them move the agendas of their clients.
GROSS: Eric Lipton will be back in the second half of the show. He's an investigative reporter for the New York Times who covers lobbying. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Eric Lipton, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, who covers lobbying and how corporations try to influence Congress as well as public opinion.
So overall, would you say that the role of lobbyists has changed in Congress or the tactics of lobbyists?
LIPTON: I think that since 2007 and the whole Abramoff scandal where you had a lobbyist who was really doing illegal things and went to jail for it and there was a lawmaker Bob Ney, who also went to jail and his former chief of staff also went to jail, or at least was convicted of wrongdoing. And then there was an effort in 2007 to tighten the rules to try to avoid, you know, really obscene conflicts of interest and influence peddling, that there's a lot more scrutiny. And there also with the whole blogosphere and the whole, you know, the influence of Politico, there's a lot more coverage right now going on of Congress and of lobbying. So I think that the whole industry needs to be more creative in a way in doing things that aren't illegal and but just, you know, work the system effectively. And so, you know, I think that all the things we've talk about our within the confines of the law. They're not illegal or, you know, or immoral. These are people who are seeking ways to influence a system and, you know, to maximize their corporate dollar and to get what they want from Congress.
GROSS: You've written recently about how corporate interests are becoming concerned about how corporations are losing influence in the Republican Party, largely because of how far the party has drifted to the right and toward, you know, Tea Party issues. What are their concerns?
LIPTON: Well, it's interesting because, you know, just historically, traditionally the corporate world has had greater influence with the Republican Party. There's a shared value system belief in, you know, the limited role of government. And so, but so therefore, you know, it's not surprising that money from the corporate sector goes to the Republican Party. But there's a perception recently that the Republican Party, at least in the House Representatives, has not been sort of following through on its part of the bargain. The government shutdown is an example. The failure of immigration legislation to move forward is another example. So here you have the corporate sector that's invested, you know, tens of millions of dollars in the Republicans in the House and that, you know, that really wants immigration legislation passed because it was, you know, visas for high-tech workers, it wants agricultural workers to be able to come to the U.S. to, you know, do farming work, and it doesn't want the government shutdown, and it also wants tax reform passed so that it can lower the corporate tax rate. But, you know, in fact, a lot of the reasons that those things aren't happening is because the Republicans in the House.
So the corporations are saying we've got to get more involved in the elections, in fact, in the primaries and try to help pick who the Republican candidates are. And we can't simply just say, you know, let's contribute to the Republican candidate and we will get our agenda through. So there's been, this year in particular, there's been a major change in the role that corporate America is playing in the midterm elections and they're trying to play a much greater role in actually selecting Republican candidates for the House instead of simply helping them get elected.
GROSS: How are they doing that? Because you write that a lot of corporate groups are afraid to out and out back the opponents of Tea Party candidates because that could be used against the opponent. Like look, that opponent is sponsored by big business; we don't want him or her. So are there alternative approaches that they're taking to try to get more centrist candidates from the Republican Party?
LIPTON: Yeah. I mean it is delicate work because, you know, if you - if the business sort of supported candidate becomes, you know, identified as an establishment candidate then some of the Tea Party and more extreme conservative groups will mobilize to support the mainstream candidate's opponent and that does and will happen. You know, but I guess it's hard to sort of - for the elephant to move around in a delicate way. So it's hard for them to in fact even through independent expenditures to, you know, which isn't necessarily tied to the candidate, him or herself, it's hard for them to sort of step into a campaign without it being known what they're doing. So I think that they in fact are just doing it in a forward way and figure that if they put enough money into certain races that they see as important that they will perhaps be able to level the playing field some. Because, you know, the groups like the Club for Growth, which supports more extreme conservatives, have become a pretty major force in helping, you know, nominate Republican candidates whose fiscal conservatism is so extreme, you know, at least from the mainstream Republican perspective, that corporate America is not happy with them by and large.
GROSS: Can you give us an example of a race where this has played out?
LIPTON: Sure. I mean, you know, late last year, there was a special election in Alabama where the Tea Party had backed a businessman named Dean Young, but the business society decided that Dean Young was too conservative and he was sort of associated with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and that he'd made some statements that sort of - that turned off the mainstream Republicans. And so they poured, literally poured cash into the accounts of another Republican candidate in this primary there named Bradley Byrne. You know, companies Caterpillar, AT&T, you know, and it just, you know, the National Retailers Association, I mean and they, you know, putting so much money that although some of the polls had suggested that Dean Young was going to - was a close, you know, was a close call, Brandon(ph) Byrne walked away with it.
And that was sort of the first test after the government shutdown that showed how serious the business community in the United States is about, you know, really playing an activist role in 2014 in trying to pick Republican candidates that are considered more business friendly. And they're going around the United States right now evaluating different races, deciding, you know, where can we have an impact, where is it worth trying to spend our money? And they're trying to basically get a House of Representatives that would be more willing to pass immigration legislation. Even though, you know, even Boehner and Cantor, the two leaders, and Republican leaders, both expressed support for it, but there's enough of a contingent of Republicans in the House that are opposed to it, so even though the business community wants it and the Republican leadership wants it, it can't happen. So the business community decides we're going to play a much more active role and that's happening as we speak.
GROSS: John Boehner just sent through a clean debt ceiling bill that passed. He brought it to the floor enabling it to pass, and he had been unwilling to do that until this week. Do you see any connection between his doing that and what you're talking about, how a lot of, you know, business groups have like turned against the far right of the Republican Party?
LIPTON: I mean I think there was intense pressure on Boehner from the business community to do just what he did, which is not, you know, flirt with the possibility of letting the U.S., you know, default on its debt again and not even entertaining that idea because it was disruptive to the U.S. economy. And so he had yet again, the same contingent of more conservative Republicans who are saying, you know, if we're going to do that we want to get concessions out of the Democrats. And, you know, Boehner entertained that idea and then ultimately walk away from it and, you know, went with the more moderate Republicans and the Democrats and then the House passed legislation. So, I mean that reflects potentially, it's hard to sort of, you know, to divvy up, you know, why that happened and what role the kind of the business roundtable and other corporate groups played in sort of twisting Boehner's arm. But there's no question they were attempting to influence Boehner to do just what he did. But it's hard to sort of, you know, backwards figure out what - how much of a factor that was.
GROSS: Is there a sense within the larger business community that they helped empower the far right of the Republican Party and now they feel like the far right has turned against them?
LIPTON: Well, it is interesting because, you know, there's, a lot of the Republican business groups helped fund redistricting efforts in states across the United States so that the various election districts were more conservative that, you know, more red or more blue. And so - and the net result of that was that you have more extreme, you know, Republicans or more extreme Democrats in the House of Representatives. And to some extent that was orchestrated by, you know, national organizations, including corporations, that wanted to redistrict, you know, the individual states in a way that they thought was going to benefit them. And so, you know, to some extent they are suffering from their own successes in having redistrict and created a much more divided, you know, House by them being from really hard red or hard blue districts.
GROSS: So the Koch brothers, who are very conservative, and have a lot of business interests and have funded a lot of far right groups and candidates, have they started to think that some of the groups or candidates they've funded no longer represent the business interests of the Koch company?
LIPTON: I mean, for the most part, I think that the candidates that they helped elect are, you know, support reducing federal spending, limiting federal regulation and, you know, just generally curbing the role of the federal government, which is, you know what the Koch brothers believe in. But I think at the same time they have helped fund the election of people who are such activists that at times these folks go beyond what the, you know, what the Koch brothers seem to really want, such as, you know, threatening to shut down and in fact, shutting down the federal government in an effort to defund the Obama health care program. That was not something that the groups supported by the Koch brothers were advocating. But some of the same people that that Koch brothers helped elect then went and in fact did that. So, you know, it's sort of like, you know, you don't necessarily control your kids, you know, once you set them loose. And sometimes the corporations are, you know, who have helped these people get elected are seeing that they aren't necessarily sticking with the program.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Lipton. He's an investigative reporter for The New York Times who writes about lobbying and the influence of corporations not only on Congress but also on public opinion.
Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Lipton. He's an investigative reporter for The New York Times. He writes about lobbying, but not just about corporate influence on Congress, he also writes about corporate influence on public opinion.
What's an example of an issue where you feel lobby groups have effectively been working to influence the opinion of Democrats in Congress?
LIPTON: I mean one of the stories that I did was looking at the House Financial Services Committee and how seats on that committee, it's sometimes called the money committee or the cash committee because it is - it draws more money from lobbying and from corporate players than any other committee because, you know, it is the committee that regulates Wall Street. And so freshman are put on that committee because it's a great way for them to raise a lot of money quickly and to defend their seat after their first term. And as a member of Congress you're most vulnerable after you've gotten elected in your second election. And if you win your second election, unless you do something really bad, or there's a major, you know, change in the politics of the United States, you're pretty safe.
So freshman are put on financial services because they want to quickly raise money and but, you know, you look Dodd-Frank for example, a legislation, you know, that came out of the recession and there's bills that would revise Dodd-Frank in a major way. And the freshman who are on financial services who are busy raising money from Wall Street, most of them went along with the provisions that would change Dodd-Frank in a major way. And so I did a story that...
GROSS: And ease restrictions.
LIPTON: Ease restrictions on the banks. And then the more senior members, by and large Democrats, along with the administration, spoke up against those changes and said you're rolling back, you know, one of the most important pieces of legislation, you know, post-recession to have passed and that many of these regulations still have not been approved. And so there's a case where there's a, you know, it's a perverse incentive for freshman that's put on financial services because there's intense pressure on them to raise money but they must raise money from the same, you know, world that they're supposedly regulating. And so, you know, how do you raise money from Wall Street and at the same time, you know, be tough on them? And so if you look at some of the votes that they've taken, the folks who are under the most pressure to raise money tend to be the folks that are voting in favor of the legislation that the lobbyists from Wall Street are pushing.
GROSS: I'm wondering if covering lobbying is just like a recipe for making you incredibly cynical about politics because the way our system works, as we all know, politicians need to raise a lot of money to get elected and to stay in office. A lot of that money comes from corporations. They're also supposed to be regulating corporations and, you know, dealing with all kinds of legislation that will have a direct effect one way or another on corporations. So, you know, how is it possible for people in Congress to remain neutral on these issues?
LIPTON: I mean, there's no question that you talk to a lawmaker and one of the least favorite parts of their job is raising money. And there's an incredible pressure on them to just constantly be asking for money. And it's unfortunate. And, you know, as I was saying it creates a sort of perverse incentive to try to not alienate the same industries that they're supposedly regulating.
Because how are you supposed to raise money if you can't raise it from the people that want to influence you? Because they're the most likely ones that want to support you. And so, I mean, does it make me cynical? I guess I think that there's a huge back story in Washington, that if you simply focus on the legislation and the policies, which in themselves are very important, that you miss a lot of what's going on.
And that, you know, I'm not suggesting in any way that, you know, the lobbying efforts, you know, determine the course of these laws. But I think that they definitely play a part. They literally - they write legislation at times. They write the questions that are asked at hearings, you know. And so, you know, they have influence and I think that it's important that we also bring some light to that sort of, you know, world that isn't so obvious.
It doesn't have a bill number, you know, and there isn't a roll call vote but it's definitely a factor in the outcome of these events.
GROSS: Before you started investigating lobbying and corporate influence, did you ever make a big mistake and accept something at face value when you shouldn't have?
LIPTON: Yeah. I mean, you know, as a Metro reporter and at the Washington Post where I used to work, I mean, I went through some budge cycles covering local governments' budgets and I got caught up and, you know, the government officials are constantly coming to you telling you just how terrible the financial situation is and how, you know, drastic the cuts they're going to have to make in the libraries and the schools and everywhere, you know.
And then you write a front page story where, you know, the government official will make a proposal for, you know, huge cuts and then of course by the time the whole budget process is over the cuts have largely been gone and funding has been found and maybe tax revenues have been increased. And the newspaper reporter has sort of been used as part of the strategy to find other money.
And, you know, I guess - I mean, reporters are constantly - I mean, I get calls every day and emails from different, you know, PR firms that are trying to get me to write about their causes. And, you know, a story in a newspaper is much more valuable than a press release. And once there's a story in the newspaper then the industry group can point to the story as proof of their case.
And so, you know, we are definitely targets of the whole, you know, the whole influence machine and I think we need to be careful to not be used.
GROSS: Eric Lipton, thank you so much for talking with us.
LIPTON: OK. Thank you very much.
GROSS: Eric Lipton is an investigative reporter for the New York Times. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. This Saturday the CBS documentary series "48 Hours" presents a documentary that's far from its usual menu of murder and mayhem. It's a two hour special called "The Whole Gritty City" and it follows young student marching bands as they prepare for coveted spots in the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: There are times when television really does try to put its best foot forward. Promoting a new fall season, for example. But it's an almost twisted rule of TV that sometimes the better a television offering is the more likely it is to be shown when even the network presenting it doesn't think many people will be watching. That's why CBS each year televises the Kennedy Center Honors during the dead week between Christmas and New Years.
It wants the prestige of showing one of the best variety specials of the year mixing opera and pop music and stars from both film and television but doesn't want to risk low ratings at a more competitive time. Similarly, that's also why CBS this weekend presents an uncharacteristically sensitive, intelligent, and inspirational edition of its "48 Hours" series. It's opposite NBC's ratings hogging coverage of the Winter Olympics so why not?
Why not, indeed? "48 Hours Presents The Whole Gritty City" is a documentary in the Fred Wiseman mold. The film by Richard Barber and Andre Lamberston has no narration - it just focuses on a specific subject for a lengthy amount of time and lets the camera record whatever happens. And then all that raw footage is edited. The only scene setting comes courtesy of Wynton Marsalis who appears at the beginning and a few more spots during the program to explain the concept, the context, and the stakes.
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WYNTON MARSALIS: New Orleans buries too many of its young. Our city has one of the highest murder rates in the country and almost half of our kids live in poverty. I'm Wynton Marsalis, born and raised in New Orleans. It's a city I adore. I'm a jazz man and a teacher. I've seen many times what happens when a child picks up an instrument and learns to play. Quality music has a power to transform minds and hearts and can on occasion even save lives.
Tonight you'll meet some extraordinary young musicians and the band leaders will teach them about life.
BIANCULLI: The opening scene of "The Whole Gritty City" turns out to be a flash forward. We see and hear a very large group of young people playing band instruments outdoors as part of a funeral service. They're playing sometimes with more volume and emotion than precision, a few of them wiping tears away as they blow their horns.
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BIANCULLI: We return to this scene at the end of the documentary. By then we know a lot more about these local bands and how much music means to the kids - and how they even inspire each other. One kid, an amazingly gifted young pre-teen, talks about how playing the trumpet is 25 percent of his life.
Then, holding a video camera, he takes us on a tour of some of the other 75 percent, including a street he runs down every day on his way to grade school, petrified because, he says, it has guns. We get to know the teachers and some of the members of three different bands, including a drum major nicknamed Scully who talks about the teacher who inspired him, Mr. Shavers.
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SCULLY: He just came out of the blue, I'm thinking about starting a band. And if they let me you will be my first drum major. And I sat there and I said are you serious? He said - I said are you serious? He said yeah. I said man, thank you, thank you, thank you. You know, of course, he got killed.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mel Shavers was a member of the Hot Eight brass band and a music teacher and band director at Rob Wood High School. He was shot as he was driving with his family on the main street. He later died in the hospital.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...not the intended target. Police say a 15 year old stepson was the intended target because of an earlier argument.
BIANCULLI: Death is a big part of this New Orleans story - something the kids face every day and sometimes confront directly. One of the band members becomes an innocent victim of the shooting and he had thought enough about his own mortality to ask his band teacher that in the event of his death he wanted all of the local youth bands to join together to play at his funeral.
That's what they're doing at the start of "The Whole Gritty City" and again at the end, and it's what we see and hear in between that makes those bookends so memorable.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.