NPR's Peter Overby: An Unusual D.C. Lobbying Story

NPR's Peter Overby, our Money, Power & Influence correspondent, has this interesting observation — and unusual example — about a recent job change in the nation's capitol.


To jump straight at the cliche ... Jeffrey Birnbaum spent years following the money. Now maybe he's found it.

Birnbaum was a pioneer reporter on the beat I cover — the Washington industries of lobbying and political finance. But starting this week, he's one of the people I'll be covering: the new president of the public relations firm in the BGR Group, a D.C. powerhouse which also includes one of most famous lobby shops. The "B" in BGR belongs to Haley Barbour, a co-founder, past chair of the Republican National Committee and now governor of Mississippi.

For 30 years, Birnbaum kept an eye on K Street (Washington's term for lobbyist-world), reporting and editing for the Wall Street Journal, then Time, Fortune and finally the Washington Post, He's written three books on D.C. and has co-written a fourth: Showdown At Gucci Gulch. It shows how Congress and K Street worked together — or not — to produce the last major rewrite of the tax code, in 1986. Neither hagiography nor screed, it's among the best books out there for a clear-eyed view of realpolitik.

But that doesn't mean Birnbaum wore latex gloves and surgical mask along with his press pass. He's never considered K Street to be thoroughly corrupt — a stand that sets him apart from some other observers of the lobby business (but, I should add, not apart from me). When he wrote a column on K Street for the Post, he went so far as to solicit tips on good deeds by lobbyists.

So, you might say, just another spin of Washington's revolving door?

"An excellent opportunity," says Birnbaum, who needed work. His last job, as managing editor-digital at the Washington Times, evaporated last month, along with most of that paper's budget. He says he looked at jobs in journalism too.

BGR Public Relations has its own clients. It's not an adjunct of BGR Government Affairs, the lobby operation.

Birnbaum told me that the projects he's dealt with so far "haven't had anything to do with lobbying — yet." He's not registered as a lobbyist; that would be necessary if he met the legal standards, including spending at least 20 percent of his time related to communicating with Capitol Hill or the executive branch.
He says he would if the job turns that direction.

"The whole point is transparency," he says. "I would do a disservice to my own career if I came even close to the line and didn't register."



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