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Our Corrupt Politics: It’s Not All Money

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Nor does Lessig. “When we actually meet our congressman,” he writes,

we confront an obvious dissonance. For that person is not the evil soul we imagined behind our government. She is not sleazy. He is not lazy. Indeed, practically every single member of Congress is not just someone who seems decent. Practically every single member of Congress is decent. These are people who entered public life for the best possible reasons. They believe in what they do. They make enormous sacrifices in order to do what they do. They give us confidence, despite the fact that they work in an institution that has lost the public’s confidence.

Lessig’s book is a theory of how decent souls have come together to create an indecent system. At its core is the idea of the “gift economy.” As Lessig explains it,

a gift economy is a series of exchanges between two or more souls who never pretend to equate one exchange to another, but who also don’t pretend that reciprocating is unimportant—an economy in the sense that it marks repeated interactions over time, but a gift economy in the sense that it doesn’t liquidate the relationships in terms of cash. Indeed, relationships, not cash, are the currency within these economies.

To see how a gift economy works, Lessig offers an everyday example:

I give you a birthday present. It is a good present not so much because it is expensive, but because it expresses well my understanding of you. In that gift, I expect something in return. But I would be insulted if on my birthday, you gave me a cash voucher equivalent to the value of the gift I gave you, or even two times the amount I gave you. Gift giving in relationship-based economies is a way to express and build relationships.

The key mistake most people make when they look at Washington—and the key misconception that characters like Abramoff would lead you to—is seeing Washington as a cash economy. It’s a gift economy. That’s why firms divert money into paying lobbyists rather than spending every dollar on campaign contributions. Campaign contributions are part of the cash economy. Lobbyists are hired because they understand how to participate in the gift economy.

Lobbyists build up relationships with politicians they like and, in many cases, agree with. They give those politicians money and they invite them out for dinner, or to their corporate box to watch ball games. They argue for the client’s interests, but they don’t argue too hard, or cross any ethical boundaries. And, over time, the politician comes to see the lobbyist as a friend. After all, the lobbyist is doing all sorts of thing that, in a person’s normal life, would lead to friendship, or at least a warm business relationship: he’s supporting the politician’s work and spending lots of time having interesting conversations with him and showing up at his events. The lobbyists are smart and personable and interesting and connected. They have expertise he needs, and connections that can help him, and information about what other political actors are doing that gives him a leg up. It is a perfect mixture of ideological comradeship, financial perks, and personal affinity. But it is the sense of comradeship and affinity that makes the whole thing work.

In many cases, the lobbyist actually is the politician’s friend. She is his former staffer, or a colleague he used to see three times a week at the congressional gym. After all, there are any number of wealthy, well-connected people who might like to bend a senator’s ear. But senators have limited time and busy schedules. They can’t make space for every supplicant with a thick bill roll and a fat rolodex. And so clever lobbying shops have figured out a way to get to politicians: hire their friends. Hire the people they have already demonstrated an interest in talking to, and accepting counsel from.

Abramoff talks at length about how he would go out of his way to hire the staffers of powerful legislators. “How did we get this access?” He asks rhetorically. “By hiring people who already had access of their own.”

From the taxpayers’ point of view, it was even worse than that. Abramoff would often extend the opportunity a few years before they were ready to retire. Abramoff relays the upshot of the strategy in almost mafioso terms:

Once I found a congressional office that was vital to our clients—usually because they were incredibly helpful and supportive—I would often become close to the chief of staff of the office. In almost every congressional office, the chief of staff is the center of power. Nothing gets done without the direct or indirect action on his or her part. After a number of meetings with them, possibly including meals or rounds of golf, I would say a few magic words: “When you are done working for the Congressman, you should come work for me at my firm.”
With that, assuming the staffer had any interest in leaving Capitol Hill for K Street—and almost 90 percent of them do, I would own him and, consequently, that entire office. No rules had been broken, at least not yet. No one even knew what was happening, but suddenly, every move that staffer made, he made with his future at my firm in mind. His paycheck may have been signed by the Congress, but he was already working for me, influencing his office for my clients’ best interests. It was a perfect—and perfectly corrupt—arrangement. I hired as many of these staffers as I could, and in return I gained increasing influence on the Hill.

But notice how Abramoff says this worked: he would first find a congressional office that was “helpful and supportive” to him, and then he would become personally close with the chief of staff—someone who probably already agreed with Abramoff on most issues, and liked him personally—by going out for good meals and playing golf. Only after years of this would the job offer come. Today, Abramoff admits it was a “corrupt” arrangement. But it probably didn’t feel that way to either side. The job offer only came after years of successful collaboration and, even more importantly, personal friendship. The gifts preceded the cash.

And the gifts are, if anything, better than the cash. Because the gifts do more than the cash. If someone walks up to you with a bag full of money and asks you to vote to make coal companies more profitable, that’s not a very persuasive argument. Even if you take the money, you’re going to feel dirty the next day. And most people don’t like to feel dirty. But if one of your smartest, most persuasive friends, a friend you agree with on almost everything, is explaining to you that those environmentalist nuts are going too far again—they’re always doing that, aren’t they?—and they have sneakily tucked a provision into a bill that would make it more expensive for your constituents to buy electricity, that’s very persuasive. And if it’s also in your self-interest to listen to him—and lobbyists are good at nothing if not making sure it is in a politician’s long-term self-interest to listen to them—then all your incentives are pointing in the same direction. You’ll listen.

The outcome of this is that a disproportionate number of people who have access to politicians, and who are owed favors by politicians, are lobbyists. And so those politicians are listening to a lot of lobbyists—lobbyists who are being paid by a client to invest in their relationships with politicians in order to advance the client’s interest. On some level, the politicians know that. But it doesn’t feel that way to them. It feels like they’re listening to reasonable arguments by people they like and respect on behalf of interests they’re already sympathetic to. And what’s so wrong with that?

The answer, of course, is that players with money are getting a lot more representation than players without money, not in sacks of cash delivered in the middle of the night, but through people a politician listens to and trusts and even likes having lunch with in the bright light of the day. That’s why savvy and well-funded players will contract with a number of different lobbyists at a number of different firms. Every lobbyist will have legislators he’s close to and legislators he isn’t. Some lobbyists, like Abramoff, specialize in conservatives. Others are more connected among liberals. Some firms have the former chief of staff to the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Others can offer the former legislative director to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. If all a client needed was the money, all he would need to do is cut a big check to one lobbyist. But what you need isn’t the money. It’s the relationships. And each lobbyist only has so many of those.

Which is why it’s so damn difficult to actually kill off lobbying. Outlawing bribes is easy. Outlawing relationships isn’t. But it’s worth asking another question, one that often goes unasked, perhaps because the answer is assumed to be so obvious. If we got the money out of politics, which problems, exactly, would we have solved?

To Lessig, money isn’t just a problem in American politics. It is the problem in American politics. Money, Lessig writes, is

the root—not the single cause of everything that ails us, not the one reform that would make democracy hum, but instead, the root, the thing that feeds the other ills, and the thing that we must kill first. The cure that would be generative—the single, if impossibly difficult, intervention that would give us the chance to repair the rest.

Lessig’s strongest argument in favor of this claim is that money poisons the citizenry’s trust in government, and thus its interest in participating in government:

When democracy seems a charade, we lose faith in its process. That doesn’t matter to some of us—we will vote and participate regardless. But to more rational souls, the charade is a signal: spend your time elsewhere, because this game is not for real. Participation thus declines, especially among the sensible middle. Policy gets driven by the extremists at both ends.

There are two separate points being made here. One is that the rise of money is behind the decline in trust in government. The other is that money empowers ideologues and alienates the middle. Neither claim stands up to scrutiny.

Lessig marshals ample poll evidence to show that Americans are angry about money in government and that anger is a contributor to their distrust of, and disgust in, the political system. None of that is in doubt. But Lessig is saying that it’s the driver, the root of all our other problems.

The Pew Research Center for People and the Press collected data from the National Election Studies, Gallup, ABC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, CNN Polls, and their own polling to analyze trends in the public’s trust of government going back to 1958. The numbers show that trust in government held above 70 percent in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. But under President Lyndon Johnson, it began to plummet. When he left office, it was barely above 60 percent. Richard Nixon’s presidency drove it below 40 percent. Jimmy Carter’s presidency sent it under 30 percent. And, with the exception of September 11, it has remained between 20 percent and 50 percent ever since.

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