Moffett in the News
DEBATE: Long Term Impact of Govt Shutdown
Toby Moffet, Former Connecticut Congressman Democrat and John Shaw, Former Assistant Secretary of Energy under Republican President George W Bush
The most powerful moment in President Barack Obama's State of the Union address last Tuesday came when he told members of Congress that the victims of the Dec. 14 Newtown school massacre and other killings "deserve a vote" on his legislative proposals to curb gun violence.
"The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote," Obama said, to tumultuous applause. "If you want to vote no, that's your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote."
Supporters of gun control hailed the ringing call for action and said Newtown has given historic momentum to the effort to pass federal firearms restrictions – but not every advocate found encouragement in the president's words.
"It was … a very sad, candid admission of defeat, in my view — because the President is a smart guy, and he knows … that the votes aren't there," said former Connecticut congressman Toby Moffett, a strong supporter of the wide array of gun-control proposals Obama made in mid-January.
If Obama thought he had the votes to get his legislation through Congress, he might have mentioned specific proposals in his speech — which he didn't — and probably would have pushed harder for passage than merely asking that they come to a vote, Moffett said in an interview two days after Obama's speech.
Lacking the needed votes, the best Obama could do was try to get opponents to go on the record as voting "no," Moffett said — because, in his view, it will probably take a sustained effort for years to overcome the powerful opposition to stronger gun restrictions, and a big part of that will be "to make votes against gun control into a political liability." The way to begin that process is to "start taking names," he said.
Moffett talked by phone from Washington, D.C., where he has been a lobbyist most of the time since 1983, when he ended eight years as a liberal Democratic member of the U.S. House representing the former 6th District in central Connecticut. He has been giving free strategic advice on gun control to church leaders since the Newtown massacre.
"This is a multi-year fight, and a generational fight, and it's going to take time," he argued. By "generational," he said he meant that when a new generation of younger people come to think about an issue differently — which takes time — it is easier to change long-entrenched attitudes and laws. An analogy is what happened with same-sex marriage, he said.
Moffett said he is close with a number of Democratic members of Congress who support gun-control, and they tell him candidly that initial constituent comments in favor of gun restrictions after Dec. 14 had been replaced weeks later by "mail and emails … all running against doing anything."
"Thank goodness that we have a President who issued … 29 executive orders" last month to impose gun restrictions, Moffett said. "Within those executive orders there are a lot of good things about stepped-up enforcement. Now it has to be followed by funding, and so Obama's challenge, with the budget being as tight as it is, is to try to shift money over to the appropriate enforcement, and beefed-up background checks, and the other things he can do under those executive orders."
On Jan. 29, Moffett startled many gun-control advocates when he wrote an article called "The Congressional 'Dance' on Gun Control" for the online Huffington Post. In it, he said the "fight can be won," but "it just won't happen quickly," and it will be a "dance marathon" lasting years.
In Thursday's interview, he elaborated on that theme in the context of Obama's national speech two days earlier. "This is going to be a long dance, and …right now the dance is not going our way — and I think that's basically what Obama was suggesting. But he couldn't say it in the State of the Union."
Clearly, Moffett sees a colder reality than the one experienced by more than 5,000 gun-control supporters who rallied enthusiastically at the State Capitol in Hartford last Thursday for similar gun restrictions being considered at the state level.
Moffett said it's best to face facts about Congress: the U.S. House is Republican-controlled, and it's possible that the most ambitious proposals by Obama — reinstatement of a national assault-weapons ban, and restriction of ammunition magazines to 10 rounds of ammunition, for example — may not ever come to a vote in that chamber.
And even in the Senate, where Democrats control 55 seats, the President can't count on all Democrats backing him, and if Republicans filibuster the issue, it would be hard to muster the 60 votes for cloture to end the stall, Moffett said.
Moffett said based on his experience in Congress, and his work with it as a lobbyist, he thinks that the most that gun-control supporters can expect this year is passage of improved background checks on gun sales — to close at least some of the loopholes that permit gun sales between individuals and at gun shows without a purchaser being checked for criminal convictions or other problems in a national database.
He said the National Rifle Association in recent decades has promoted the view among gun owners that assault-style weapons should be in civilian hands because of an absolute Second Amendment right to gun ownership and what Moffett called the misguided argument that "the government's coming to invade your home."
The NRA solidly backs well-entrenched members of Congress, mostly Republicans, who champion Second Amendment rights and say that law-abiding gun owners should not be penalized for the acts of a few maniacs who commit mass murder.
Now, Moffett said that for gun-control backers, "the question is this, tactically: Do they get something passed that is watered down" — such as improved background checks, but no assault-weapons ban — and "then declare partial victory and say we'll live to fight this battle another day? Or does absolutely nothing happen. I mean I think that's how sad this whole thing is. I think that where we are is [the probability of] either legislation that creates an illusion of action, but not much action, versus nothing."
That's not the tune being sung by Connecticut's two current U.S. senators, Democrats Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy. Both have played high-profile roles in the post-Newtown push for gun-control legislation.
Blumenthal has introduced his own bill to require background checks not only for gun purchases, but also for ammunition. Murphy has released two reports, prepared by his staff, seeking to debunk what he called the myths of the NRA's political clout in election campaigns and its claim that it represents average gun owners rather than weapons manufacturers.
The state's representatives in the U.S. House — particularly newly elected Elizabeth Esty, whose 5th District includes Newtown — have also been active in the push for gun restrictions.
Both senators said that the big turnout at the gun-control rally in Hartford spoke well for prospects for passage of gun legislation,
Blumenthal said the "Connecticut effect" — a term used last week by an NRA lobbyist in Wisconsin who thought the effect of Newtown would blow over — "is not going away. Now is our moment. …. Connecticut and people around the country are committed to sustaining this sense of urgency."
However, when asked about the opposition to gun control shown in the composition of both congressional chambers, each acknowledged that the results they want might not all be immediate.
"I've said from the beginning that this work is an uphill battle. It's an uphill climb for any of these measures," Blumenthal said. But he pointed at "growing support for a criminal background check measure … closing the private sale or gun-show loophole," among other measures short of an assault weapons ban.
"There's no doubt that the toughest road is on the assault weapons ban," Murphy said. But the two senators said that it took five years to finally win the 1994 passage of an earlier ban on such weapons that expired during the Bush administration and has not been reinstated.
"Republicans can stop all of these reforms from happening if they want," said Murphy. "I mean, Republicans can filibuster in the Senate, and they can refuse to call any bill for a vote in the House of Representatives. … So the question for Republicans is this: Do they want to go into the next election as the party of the gun lobby? Do they think they can go out and sell a message to America that involves explaining why they stood in the way of gun violence legislation that's supported by the majority of Americans, and perhaps the majority of gun owners themselves?"
Moffett said that after he wrote his "dance marathon" piece for the Huffington Post that suggested that it might take years to pass significant restrictions, he received a handwritten note from Murphy. "He said, 'I'm prepared to dance as long as I have to dance.' You know, that was a great note."
It's usually called "lobbying" but as Eric Redman suggested in his book The Dance of Legislation a half century ago, those who try to influence lawmaking -- congressmen and their staffs, constituents, advocates -- are more like choreographers. They're all desperately trying to make the dance go their way. And so are those trying to stop the dance from going anywhere.
These days I'm walking the congressional corridors as a volunteer advocate for gun control, helping an impressive coalition of mayors, police leaders, clergy and even a handful of sportsmen groups push for an assault weapons ban, a limit on high magazine guns and other critical reforms.
If you listen to the TV talking heads, you'll hear that "Newtown changed everything" and passage of a tough gun control package is virtually guaranteed.
Indeed, on any day you stroll through Hill office buildings, you come upon press conferences -- police and preachers and urban leaders speaking proudly about how they're organizing to get real gun control through Congress.
But my sense is that this dance is not going well for us. My experience in my four terms in Congress and more than twenty years rounding up votes for private sector and non-profit clients tells me that our side is not really in charge of the choreography. It's in the hands of those trying to stop the dance.
Even in an institution where retreat from short-lived outrage and determination to change things is manifest, this evolving surrender -- just weeks after the massacre of small children -- is stunning. One day it's the liberal chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee introducing an already-watered-down bill that seeks only to strengthen background checks. The next it's our earnest Vice President in Richmond for a "pro-gun-control" event where he, too, never mentions assault weapons. And then we see the look of defeat on the face of gun control's biggest advocate, Senator Dianne Feinstein, when she's asked if her comprehensive bill has a good chance of passage. Meanwhile, the sound of Democrats running for the hills for fear of losing their seats in 2014 is unmistakable. Congressmen and Senators, who vowed to support tough measures, return from their first trip home post-Newtown to say they are now "studying" the issue.
For me, this dance-gone-wrong on guns spans decades. It goes back to my eight years in Congress representing 50 western Connecticut towns, including Newtown.
When the national media discovered Newtown, they rightly called it "bucolic" and the "typical" New England town. But for me, Newtown was an anomaly. I vividly recall looking forward to going to the local high school to speak with students and how animated and idealistic they were. But I also dreaded returning to that same auditorium for a weekend meeting with constituents. In those "congressional town meetings," the radical fringe of the pro-gun community dominated.
That was just about the time, in the late 1970s, that the extremists in the NRA took control of the debate. These were not primarily sportsmen, but rather the fanatic fringe who saw guns (the more lethal the better) as protecting them from a government assault.
When I gave up that politically "safe" seat after four terms and narrowly lost a US Senate race, the NRA was instrumental in my defeat. And today, thirty years later, the organization is more extreme, better funded and more intimidating to politicians than it was then. Have we ever seen an interest group heap such scorn on a popular president and vice president, to say nothing of a solid majority of the American people?
For the past twenty years I've been in the middle of a lot of legislative battles. Most recently, I worked with a coalition of New York City contractors, police and fire unions, Mayor Bloomberg and health care providers, pushing for a bill providing benefits to sick people who had volunteered at Ground Zero after 9/11.
We won, but it took us five years. That dance had many twists and turns, stops and starts. And we weren't fighting the NRA and its gun maker patrons. And voting for health care benefits for heroes wasn't nearly as politically dangerous as crossing angry gun owners who detest government.
Still, this fight can be won. This dance can be done. It just won't happen quickly. Not this year and not in this session of Congress. Sure, something will be passed to go along with the executive orders that the President so rightly issued. But it will be more Congress creating an illusion of action than tough action itself.
This fight will more likely be won because of what this generation at Newtown High School does in the years ahead than because of what their parents--and the rest of us--do now. It will require those clergy in our coalition to preach about what one recently called the "religiously repugnant behavior" of the pro-assault weapon crowd. It will require taking names of lawmakers who resist limits on guns and backing reform candidates to defeat them.
This, too, will be a dance, but it will be more like a dance marathon.
Toby Moffett is a former Congressman from Connecticut and the current Chairman of the Moffett Group in Washington, D.C.
“So, what do you do?”
I’ve gotten used to the reaction I get when I answer that question. Given my lack of gray hair, it’s usually one of surprise.
I’m 27 years old, and I’m a lobbyist.
We’ve all heard the saying that young people run Capitol Hill, but over the past five years I’ve come to realize just how advantageous my age actually is in my profession. In fact, I sometimes think it might be harder for older lobbyists to get things done.
While they’re throwing down $1,000 in the hope of grabbing a member’s ear for five minutes at a fundraiser, I’m in the Fairgrounds outside Nationals Park, having a beer with some friends before first pitch. Inevitably, many of those friends are Hill and administration staffers — people I roomed with in college or met last weekend at a friend’s birthday party.
The most useful strategies I develop often comes out of these kinds of off-campus interactions with staffer friends. When we start nerding out over possible bill co-sponsors at our monthly poker game, for instance, we know we don’t have to filter our ideas — which means we can be more open, bold and innovative. These ideas aren’t always perfect, but the number of times a key strategy or piece of intel has come out of casual discussions during poker or Sunday football would probably surprise you.
Of course, staffers are the people who actually get things done in D.C., which is why working with them is so productive. They’re the ones who bust their butts to understand issue complexities and intricacies — all while working for outrageously little money. Members are drinking from a firehose.
The best part of my job is working with the Hill to devise strategy — and helping staffers understand how this strategy will affect decision-making outside D.C. It’s not always easy to make that impact known on Capitol Hill, to show members the effects their decisions (or lack thereof) have in the rest of the country.
Take renewable energy tax credits, for example. The credits for wind projects were set to expire Dec. 31, 2012 (the credit was extended by the fiscal cliff deal), the others at the end of 2013. There was strong bipartisan support for extending the credits in both chambers. But the attitude on the Hill (on this and any number of other issues) was reactive, not proactive; Congress waited until the very last minute to talk about whether and how to extend these credits.
In the meantime, renewable energy projects require months of lead time for permitting and planning. Outside the Beltway, companies have to decide whether to sink millions of dollars into a project for which they might not be able to claim a tax credit six months down the road. No CEO worth his or her salt would move ahead with such uncertainty, so projects were put on ice and the associated jobs disappeared — just in time for the holidays.
That’s why I do what I do: to make Washington understand the country’s problems. Is the system perfect? Of course not. Most of the problems come down to money. Look, I get that members have to raise a lot of dough, both for their campaigns and for “dues.” But when I finish a meeting with a staff member, and check my phone to find an invitation to his boss’s fundraiser before I’ve left Longworth, it’s easy to understand why the country holds Congress in such disdain, and why so many on the Hill feel trapped in the system, too.
The elections were two months ago, and already I’ve been invited to several campaign events — for 2014. Now, I’ve run into some lobbyists who are in business solely because they are prolific fundraisers, but I think they give the profession a bad name. If you took an anonymous poll of lobbyists of all ages, I bet the percentage that favors serious campaign finance changes would blow you away.
But I’m not complaining — far from it. I’ve learned a great deal as a young lobbyist about how things actually get done in Washington, and the quizzical look I get when I tell people I’m a lobbyist is definitely worth it. My age gives me a number of advantages and insights that older lobbyists simply don’t have — and makes me better at my job in the process.
Mickey Leibner is director of government relations for the Moffett Group.
What's It Mean If Larson Loses Leadership Role? At least one person says it doesn't mean much at all.
What's It Mean If Larson Loses Leadership Role? At least one person says it doesn't mean much at all.
It was late 2010. Dick Blumenthal was a senator-elect, having just beaten Linda McMahon, and he and I were having lunch in Washington.
The conversation turned to who might become the other senator from our state when Joe Lieberman retired.
We agreed that the young congressman, Chris Murphy, would be a wonderful senator. He had just won his third House term in a district not easy for a Democrat. He had compiled an impressive record of advocacy for people and for reform of our government. He was a tireless public servant.
But I expressed some concern that we might have a tough time beating McMahon and her bottomless fortune twice.
“Dick, it’s nothing against Murphy,” I said. “But just because you beat her, it doesn’t mean she’ll lose to someone else.” I told him. “You are a freak of political nature. You have a bond that goes deeper with the citizens than almost any politician I’ve seen.”
Blumenthal was laughing, not unaware of how the political class in Connecticut had been making fun of him for years. With some delight and a bit of grudging admiration, we gossiped about his endless hours on the road in frantic pursuit of people and gatherings. “Dick doesn’t only go to garage sales,” we’d say. “He goes to garage openings.”
So in 2010, a horrible year for Democrats everywhere, the ever-present and enormously popular Blumenthal couldn’t lose to a wealthy wrestling czar, not even when she buried him in negative ads. His support from the public came from decades of statewide advocacy as attorney general.
"One day Chris Murphy might be as popular as you, Dick,” I said. “But it won’t happen overnight.”
In fact, the relentless barrage of anti-Murphy ads has allowed McMahon to introduce the congressman to voters in various negative ways. The race is in a dead heat and suddenly on the national radar for both parties with control of the U.S. Senate up for grabs. Murphy didn’t expect a “coronation” as McMahon asserted in their debate last week. But he probably made a mistake common to House members who decide to run statewide.
He overestimated his recognition and popularity in the vast majority of the state outside his congressional district. He thought his leadership on critical issues like health care, oversight of government agencies, and help for Connecticut’s small businesses was known and appreciated. I recognize that mistake because I made it myself. Three decades ago this year, at the same age as Murphy, I gave up that same House seat in northwestern Connecticut to run against a wealthy Fairfield County candidate. In my early forays outside that district — to New London, New Haven, Bridgeport, and the wealthy suburbs near New York — I vividly recall being stunned by how much of a stranger I seemed to be to so many people.
That’s pretty much where the analogy between that race and this one ends.
Lowell Weicker, my opponent then, was a two-term incumbent Republican senator. He had family money but it was by no means his main source of financial support. He was a serious and thoughtful public servant. I tried to run against him from the left and rather quickly discovered that there wasn’t a lot of room out there.
Six years later Lieberman beat Weicker running against him from the right.
But Lieberman, next to McMahon, looks like the liberal Chuck Schumer. As disgusted as many Democrats are with Lieberman’s lurch to the right on many matters, he, nonetheless, voted to allow Democrats to be in the majority. And he continued his decades-long commitment to environmental protection, thoughtful government reforms, and critical social programs for the cities and the poor.
Most of what we see of McMahon is in those nonstop commercials bought with her wrestling fortune. Those clever and carefully scripted ads, give her aura of acceptability. It’s not hard to do if you have the money. Make slick, easy-to-watch commercials and you can make almost anyone look acceptable.
But the only other glimpses of McMahon we get are not so flattering. They are mostly from behind as she and an aide head to the car after one of her occasional campaign events, cameras and reporters trailing, trying to ask simple questions. Almost invariably, we hear her murmur “no comment.” We’ve never really had a U.S. Senate candidate this cozy with the far right and with this much of a chance to win. Connecticut has never had a Senate candidate this close to winning who would vote to allow right-wing Republican senators to lead not only the Senate and set its agenda, but to chair every committee, including those that confirm nominees for the Supreme Court.
That’s really the difference here. This Republican Party has no moderates. It has no Lowell Weicker.
After Weicker beat me in a hotly contested race, he returned to Washington to add his vote to other Republicans on the question of which party controls the Senate. But those Republicans and their party resembled those in today’s Senate in name only.
It’s impossible to imagine Weicker — or any other Connecticut senator in modern history — supporting tax cuts for the 1 percent at the expense of vital social programs, or voting for the Blunt Amendment aimed squarely at denying contraceptive coverage to poor women. But those are the positions of this year’s Republican Senate candidate. No wonder the head of the ultra-right Family Institute of Connecticut said last week he’d support McMahon “because it will be the end of Roe v. Wade” if she wins.
Perhaps that’s why three decades later, Weicker and I are out there campaigning in a Connecticut Senate race again. But this time we’re together — supporting Chris Murphy.
Toby Moffett served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a member from Connecticut’s 6th District from 1975 to 1983.