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Selling Washington

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As the criminal investigation of the Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff was underway this spring, a spokesman for the law firm representing him issued a statement saying that Abramoff was “being singled out by the media for actions that are commonplace in Washington and are totally proper.” Abramoff has since said much the same thing. The lawyer was half right. Like many other lobbyists, Abramoff often arranged for private organizations, particularly nonprofit groups, to sponsor pleasant, even luxurious, trips for members of Congress, with lobbyists like himself tagging along and enjoying the unparalleled “access” that such a setting provides; i.e., they get to know congressmen and sell them on legislation. They take over skyboxes at sporting events, inviting members of Congress and their staffs.

But Abramoff has differed from other lobbyists in his flamboyance (he owned two Washington restaurants, at which he entertained), and in the egregiously high fees he charged clients, in particular, Indian tribes in the casino business. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee, headed by John McCain, found last year that Abramoff and an associate, Michael Scanlon, a political consultant and former communications director for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, received at least $66 million from six tribes over three years. Abramoff also instructed the tribes to make donations to certain members of Congress and conservative causes he was allied with. And he was careless—for example in putting on his credit card charges for DeLay’s golfing trip to the St. Andrews golf course in Scotland in 2000, with a stop in London for a bit of semi-serious business to make the trip seem legitimate. It’s illegal for a lobbyist to pay for congressional travel, but Abramoff is reported to have paid for three of DeLay’s trips abroad. A prominent Republican lobbyist told me that the difference between what Abramoff did and what many other lobbyists do was simply “a matter of degree and blatancy.”

Abramoff’s behavior is symptomatic of the unprecedented corruption—the intensified buying and selling of influence over legislation and federal policy—that has become endemic in Washington under a Republican Congress and White House. Corruption has always been present in Washington, but in recent years it has become more sophisticated, pervasive, and blatant than ever. A friend of mine who works closely with lobbyists says, “There are no restraints now; business groups and lobbyists are going crazy—they’re in every room on Capitol Hill writing the legislation. You can’t move on the Hill without giving money.”

This remark is only slightly exaggerated. For over ten years, but particularly since George W. Bush took office, powerful Republicans, among them Tom DeLay and Senator Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, have been carrying out what they call the “K Street Project,” an effort to place more Republicans and get rid of Democrats in the trade associations and major national lobbying organizations that have offices on K Street in downtown Washington (although, of course, some have offices elsewhere).

The Republican purge of K Street is a more thorough, ruthless, vindictive, and effective attack on Democratic lobbyists and other Democrats who represent businesses and other organizations than anything Washington has seen before. The Republicans don’t simply want to take care of their friends and former aides by getting them high-paying jobs: they want the lobbyists they helped place in these jobs and other corporate representatives to arrange lavish trips for themselves and their wives; to invite them to watch sports events from skyboxes; and, most important, to provide a steady flow of campaign contributions. The former aides become part of their previous employers’ power networks. Republican leaders also want to have like-minded people on K Street who can further their ideological goals by helping to formulate their legislative programs, get them passed, and generally circulate their ideas. When I suggested to Grover Norquist, the influential right-wing leader and the leading enforcer of the K Street Project outside Congress, that numerous Democrats on K Street were not particularly ideological and were happy to serve corporate interests, he replied, “We don’t want nonideological people on K Street, we want conservative activist Republicans on K Street.”

The K Street Project has become critical to the Republicans’ efforts to control all the power centers in Washington: the White House, Congress, the courts—and now, at least, an influential part of the corporate world, the one that raises most of the political money. It’s another way for Republicans to try to impose their programs on the country. The Washington Post reported recently that House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, of Missouri, has established “a formal, institutionalized alliance” with K Street lobbyists. They have become an integral part of the legislative process by helping to get bills written and passed—and they are rewarded for their help by the fees paid by their clients. Among the results are legislation that serves powerful private interests all the more openly—as will be seen, the energy bill recently passed by the House is a prime example—and a climate of fear that is new. The conservative commentator David Brooks said on PBS’s NewsHour earlier this year, “The biggest threat to the Republican majority is the relationship on K Street with corporate lobbyists and the corruption that is entailed in that.” But if the Republicans are running a risk of being seen as overreaching in their takeover of K Street, there are few signs that they are concerned about it.

When the Republicans first announced the K Street Project after they won a majority in Congress in the 1994 election, they warned Washington lobbying and law firms that if they wanted to have appointments with Republican legislators they had better hire more Republicans. This was seen as unprecedentedly heavy-handed, but their deeper purposes weren’t yet understood. Since the Democrats had been in power on Capitol Hill for a long time, many of the K Street firms then had more Democrats than Republicans or else they were evenly balanced. But the Democrats had been hired because they were well connected with prominent Democrats on Capitol Hill, not because Democratic Congresses demanded it. Moreover, it makes sense for lobbying firms that want access to members of Congress to hire people with good contacts in the majority party—especially former members or aides of the current leaders. But the bullying tactics of Republicans in the late 1990s were new.

DeLay, Santorum, and their associates organized a systematic campaign, closely monitored by Republicans on Capitol Hill and by Grover Norquist and the Republican National Committee, to put pressure on firms not just to hire Republicans but also to fire Democrats. With the election of Bush, this pressure became stronger. A Republican lobbyist told me, “Having the White House” has made it more possible for DeLay and Santorum “to enforce the K Street Project.” Several Democratic lobbyists have been pushed out of their jobs as a result; business associations who hire Democrats for prominent positions have been subject to retribution. They are told that they won’t be able to see the people on Capitol Hill they want to see. Sometimes the retribution is more tangible. The Republican lobbyist I spoke to said, “There’s a high state of sensitivity to the partisanship of the person you hire for these jobs that did not exist five, six years ago—you hire a Democrat at your peril.”

In one instance well known among lobbyists, the Ohio Republican Michael Oxley, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, put pressure on the Investment Company Institute, a consortium of mutual fund companies, to fire its top lobbyist, a Democrat, and hire a Republican to replace her. According to a Washington Post story on February 15, 2003, six sources, both Democratic and Republican, said that members of Oxley’s staff told the institute that a pending congressional investigation of mutual fund companies “might ease up if the mutual fund trade group complies with their wishes.” It apparently didn’t matter to them that House ethics rules prohibit congressmen or their staff “from bestowing benefits on the basis of the recipient’s status as a supporter or contributor, or partisan affiliation.” A Republican now holds the top job at the Investment Company Institute.

Last year retribution was taken against the Motion Picture Association of America, which—after first approaching without success a Republican congressman about to retire—hired as its new head Dan Glickman, a former Democratic representative from Kansas and secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration. Republicans had warned the MPAA not to hire a Democrat for the job. After Glickman was hired, House Republicans removed from a pending bill some $1.5 billion in tax relief for the motion picture industry. Norquist told me, “No other industry is interested in taking a $1.5 billion hit to hire a Clinton friend.” After Glickman was selected, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported last year, “Santorum has begun discussing what the consequences are for the movie industry.” Norquist said publicly that the appointment of Glickman was “a studied insult” and the motion picture industry’s “ability to work with the House and the Senate is greatly reduced.” Glickman responded by hiring prominent Republicans, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s former spokesman, for major MPAA jobs.

Norquist’s organization, Americans for Tax Reform, keeps watch on other K Street firms and calls attention on its Web site to the ones that are out of line.1 According to a report in The Washington Post in 2003, an official of the Republican National Committee told a group of Republican lobbyists that thirty-three of the top thirty-six top-level K Street positions had gone to Republicans.

Despite its effectiveness, “the K Street Project is far from complete,” according to Norquist, who says, “There should be as many Democrats working on K Street representing corporate America as there are Republicans working in organized labor—and that number is close to zero.” He wants the project to include not just the top jobs in K Street firms, but “all of them—including secretaries.”

A prominent Democratic Party fund-raiser believes that in 2001, after nineteen years as head of a trade association, he was fired because he was not a Republican. Another Democratic lobbyist told me that one of his major clients was put under pressure to drop him because he was a Democrat. A staff member in DeLay’s office called the second of the two men and told him that he was “in DeLay’s crosshairs,” and warned him that if he attempted to work with any committees on Capitol Hill, he would get nowhere because of his political leanings.

Episodes of this kind have created a new atmosphere of fear in Washington. (Because of that atmosphere, these people as well as several others insisted on talking “on background,” to protect themselves against retribution.) The Democratic lobbyist whose client was pressured by Republicans to drop him remarked, “It’s a dangerous world out there,” a world where, he said, “You’d better watch what you say. People in the Republican party, in the agencies, will say, ‘I hear you were badmouthing X.’ You know that you’re being watched; you know that it’s taken into account in your ability to do public policy things—[like] get a meeting with a government agency.” Another lobbyist says, “It’s scary now. People are afraid to say what they feel. It’s had a chilling effect on debate.” According to the head of a public policy group who frequently deals with lobbyists and corporations, “They don’t have to say it,” but he finds them now “intimidated by the atmosphere in this town—you hire Republicans.”

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    See www.atr.org/national/kstreet.

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