Beyond K Street
Lee Drutman is the co-author of The People’s Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy.
In the wake of lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s recent guilty plea, Republican congressional leaders are rushing to give a big bear hug to lobbying reform. With the media spotlight on full blast, both House and Senate leaders are talking in bold promises . They want to increase disclosure. They want to ban lobbyists from giving gifts and providing travel. One Republican congressman has even floated the idea of barring former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists (though the chances of that becoming law have to be about nil).
Certainly, almost any version of lobbying reform currently proposed would be an improvement. However, there are some big problems with the way the current debate over lobbying reform is moving forward.
Problem number one is that while Jack Abramoff’s duplicitous double-dealing may make for great copy, it’s really not all that representative of how lobbyists work. Focus too closely on preventing more Jack Abramoffs, and you miss much of the bigger picture, including the fundamental inequality inherent in who gets represented in the lobbying process and why.
To gain some perspective, it helps to remember that Jack Abramoff was just one of 35,000 registered lobbyists in Washington. And unlike Abramoff, who flew way too close to the sun for too long, most lobbyists actually do play by the rules. (Though that isn’t saying much, given the current laxity of lobbying restrictions.)
Abramoff appears to have been an equal-opportunity exploiter, often cheating his clients out of millions of dollars with great epithets of disrespect. In contrast, the vast majority of lobbyists dutifully serve their clients all too well, using their connections and experience to skillfully present their clients’ positions before elected and appointed decisionmakers.
Another problem is that super-connected lobbyists like Abramoff—who know how to get stuff done—charge an awful lot of money for their time. We’re talking here about the kind of rarified six- and seven-digit fees that only the specialist of special interests can (and do) pay for.
No wonder, then, that of the 100 groups who spent the most on lobbying between 1998 and 2004, 98 were businesses or business trade groups (the only two exceptions were the AARP and the AFL-CIO). Three companies—Verizon, Altria and General Electric—shelled out more than $100 million apiece during this period. The real scandal, then, is that these wealthy special interests are spending millions of dollars to influence the political process largely without any significant countervailing forces.
So what of the proposed reforms?
How about more disclosure? Well, it would undoubtedly give us more facts and figures on how unequal the system of lobbying is. But we already know this. Sure, we could know it in more detail and quicker. But how much more detail do we need before we realize we've got some real problems of political representation in this country?
What about banning gifts and travel? Because Abramoff’s signature style of lobbying involved lavish gifts and trips, much debate over lobbying has focused on this practice. But gifts are already capped at $100 per year and $50 per occasion. Lobbyists are already prohibited from paying for travel, and all privately funded travel must be disclosed within 30 days. Sure, lunches and trips can help make congressmen more receptive to lobbyists, but, come on—how many congressmen are so fickle as to be bought for fancy lunch?
The real problem here is not that politicians are selling their votes for a choice cut of filet mignon, a side of garlic mashed potatoes and a glass of Zinfandel. The real problem is that they were bought long ago by a corrupt system of campaign finance.
Consider, for a moment, what it takes to get elected these days. In order to run for a seat in the House of Representatives, you need to raise, on average, a million dollars. A seat in the Senate takes about $6 million. And to run for president? Well, you’ll need at least $200 million, probably $300 million. And where can you get this kind of money? Well, you can turn to businesses and wealthy donors, who can make those $2,000-a-pop donations like nothing and then get 50 of their friends to do the same. All told, about three-quarters of campaign cash these days is business-related.
What this means is that if you want to get elected, you’re going to have to find a way to appeal to these donors, whether by promising favors or, even better, being a free-market ideologue who believes with missionary zeal that doing away with almost all regulation and setting business free to do as it pleases will make America great again. No wonder so many elected leaders are so sympathetic to business interests and happy to meet with their lobbyists. Without that kind of pronounced sympathy for business, it’s hard to get elected. \Yet, there are rumblings of hope. In Connecticut, where the old governor, John Rowland, wound up in jail after a corruption scandal, the new governor, Jodi Rell, recently signed a bill introducing public funding of elections, making Connecticut the seventh state to enact some version of public funding of elections. The idea of candidates running “clean” (i.e., without any outside money) seems to be catching on in the states (the so-called laboratories of democracy)—a welcome antidote to the special interest money chase that so distorts the political process at the federal level.
As the debate over lobbying reform moves forward, it will be all too easy for politicians and pundits make Jack Abramoff into the easy villain, the darkly lit fedora-wearing gangster who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “ethical.”
Yet, as is often the case in Washington, the true scandal is what is legal. And what is legal is a campaign finance system and a lobbying system where wealthy corporations can open their treasuries, utterly overwhelm what few countervailing forces still exist anymore, and often get a hundred-fold return on their investment in terms of tax breaks, subsidies and other favors.
More disclosure can tell us more about the problem, but it won’t solve anything on its own. Reducing the limit on gifts from $100 to zero is fine, but mostly cosmetic. But until we stop looking for quid pro quo corruption (which is rare and hard to find) and instead start focusing on the fundamental inequalities in the system of political representation, we will continue to miss the big story. And the state of our democracy will be all the worse for it.