Meet a former congressional-staffer-turned-lobbyist who says grassroots movements matter

Washington, D.C. has always been a place where many young professionals go but few stay. The district can be the quintessential killer of dreams or proving ground for the annual 15,000 interns that hope to make it in “this town.”

Gerald F. Warburg was one of those hopeful interns in the early 1970s. Following his undergraduate commencement, Warburg packed his bags and made the 3,000-mile trip from his home state of California to the capital city on the east coast. It was competitive even back then but Warburg made the cut and spent the next four decades as a House of Representatives and Senate staffer before he passed through the revolving door and into the lobbying industry.

What has surprised him the most during those years was the ability for grassroots organizations and the public to affect policy, Warburg explains in his new memoir “Dispatches from the Eastern Front,” a story that does not echo the familiar self-serving tendencies of many of America’s political greats.

“I found the problem was not really the lobbyists, it’s the elected members themselves. They’re hooked on campaign cash. They’re not going to change the law,” Warburg said. “It’s going to take citizens going around the entrenched Washington elected officials.”

He admitted it’s a little unusual for a former lobbyist to say members are addicted to lobbyist money but quickly followed-up with a point he hits on his book: “I think you need to try and control, not eliminate, the flows of money so that Aunt Millie on Main Street has as much power. I think you need to restore people’s faith in democracy because all of our views are equal.”

He explained that the majority of money raised comes from corporations, not individual donors. Campaign cash then goes toward raising money in order to either intimidate a potential primary opponent or try to buy chairmanships by giving money to challenged incumbents in their party to boost personal standings.

Warburg said the lack of consequences that members of Congress see has pushed the under-the-rug problem to blow up in the last few decades, especially enormous donations from corporations.

“Corporations aren’t people and money isn’t speech. Our voice and our power aren’t equal. Money will always find a way to get into politics but I think you’ll see a national movement over the next 10 to 20 years where there’s going to have to be a constitutional amendment over campaign finance.”

The answer to the problem, he said, is grassroot movements that demand attention from the government, including groups like the tea party.

“You’d think I would say movements are bad but I’m a back-to-the-roots citizen-action person. I pay a lot of attention to Rand Paul,” said Warburg, adding, “I would argue I’m skeptical how grassroots that are heavily financed by industries are not grassroots supporting a point of view by many Americans.”


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