PhotoWhen you see an aging celebrity hawking an osteoporosis medication on TV, you don't believe that person actually uses the product or knows anything about it, now do you?

Of course you don't, and you should bring the same skepticism to statements made by politicians on behalf of big corporations and special-interest groups.

Which brings us to the subject of AT&T and its attempt to portray its proposed takeover of T-Mobile as pro-competitive.  Maybe it is, but don't take anybody's word for it.

Case in point: on Sept. 16, the attorneys general of seven states joined the U.S. Justice Department suit to block the merger.  Just a few weeks earlier, ten other state attorneys general had backed the merger, and they followed up on Sept. 21 by encouraging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Justice Department to speed the merger on its way. 

Follow the money

Attorneys general are the chief law enforcement officers for their states, so how could they disagree so completely?  Good question. As always in politics, the answer can be found by following the money.

The AT&T-friendly AGs represent Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming, and the AGs from Michigan and South Dakota are the only ones in the group who have not benefited from AT&T’s largesse, the consumer group Free Press reports.

The other eight have collectively received $28,490 in AT&T contributions, according to data gathered by Follow the Money, a campaign-finance database created by the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics.

This places them in the company of pretty much everyone who has voiced support for the merger.

In the first half of 2011, AT&T lobbying spending jumped by 30 percent, to $11.7 million.  Much of that pile of cash went to Congressmen, including 15 who signed a letter to President Obama urging him to support the merger, Free Press said.

The Congressmen signing those letters received more than $570,000 in campaign contributions from AT&T.

And last Tuesday, 100 House Republicans signed a similar letter to Obama; all but one of these lawmakers have received donations from AT&T employees, for a whopping total of $963,275, Free Press added.

Business as usual

Think this is a yawner?  Just business as usual?  Well, maybe so.  After all, the U.S. telecommunications business has always been heavily regulated and you could argue that the companies that have been around forever are better at lobbying lawmakers and drumming up "grassroots support" than they are at building cell towers or making sure calls don't get dropped.

Back in the days when state utility commissioners still wielded a lot of power over telephone companies, the process resembled an old-style Tammany Hall as telcos and their hired guns ran around town passing out money to charities, "civic organizations," churches, schools and just about anyone else who would agree to come to a PUC hearing and testify in favor of whatever the phone company was after.

Then along came "deregulation," which really amounted to a federal power grab.  The state PUCs lost their ability to nickel-and-dime the phone companies and a lot of local-level influence peddlers found their free lunch had evaporated.

But log-rolling hadn't gone away.  It had just moved to Washington.  Congress, after all, is better able to absorb large sums of money than any pipsqueak local agency and has no qualms about doing so. 

Now and then, the telcos will return to the places of their births to spread a little change around but the action these days is all on Capitol Hill, as this tawdry little episode reminds us. 

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