Despite mounting policy setbacks and declining public support, until recently the Republican Party stood triumphant. President George W. Bush was re-elected. The GOP strengthened its control of Capitol Hill. From Fox News to Rush Limbaugh, Republicans gained major media beachheads. Moreover, the GOP has been asserting control over other organs of influence, including Washington’s fabled “K Street,” or lobbying sector.
In fact, the latter reflects a conscious strategy of increasing the Republican presence among lobbyists, commonly termed the “K Street Project.” The Washington Post reported in June 2003 that “a decade after Republicans launched a campaign to oust Democrats from top lobbying jobs in Washington” the GOP had largely succeeded, having “seized a significant number of the most influential positions at trade associations and corporate government affairs offices—and reaping big financial rewards.”
This was no mean achievement, since 40 years of Democratic congressional control spawned a generation of Democratic lobbyists. But this success might end up being a Pyrrhic victory. In the midst of the growing web of allegations surrounding Jack Abramoff, Republicans now fear losing control of Congress in the midterm elections.
The impact of the Abramoff saga has spread beyond Congress. Even yours truly has ended up as a bit player, having been paid by Abramoff to write occasionally about issues of mutual interest. Although I didn’t change my views, it was a bad judgment for which I’ve taken a well-earned professional hit.
Despite the frenzy now evident in Washington, in important ways l’affaire Abramoff appears to be overblown. Abramoff’s activities were unseemly, even salacious. His fees were breathtaking. His treatment of his clients was at best denigrating and at worst fraudulent. His relationships with nonprofits and charities broke new ground. But there appears to have been no bribery as commonly understood, no bags of money transferred to policymakers.
The Bush administration, for all of its manifold failings, is not the Grant administration. There appears to be no Teapot Dome oil reserve buried beneath the Mariana Islands. No one offered congressmen cash for legislation à la the Abscam scandal. If legislators did trade official acts for Abramoff’s favors, they really didn’t get that much in return—a Scottish golf vacation? Although the Abramoff affair deserves denunciation in the court of public opinion, it is less clear that many people will be convicted in the court of law.
The scandal’s greater significance is what it tells us about Washington and the GOP. The picture isn’t pretty, but the tale isn’t new. The federal Leviathan is far too big, encouraging, even necessitating, an expansive K Street. And the Republicans, with few exceptions, care far more about being re-elected than about implementing their professed principles.
For years, lobbyists have been viewed as disreputable—not as bad as prostitutes perhaps, but, especially since many are lawyers, engaged in work that most parents won’t mention to their friends. Lobbying exists for a simple reason, however: the First Amendment protects the right of people to advocate their cause before government. Petitioning officeholders once elected is as important as electing them in the first place.
If government didn’t do much, there wouldn’t be much to lobby about. Peggy Noonan blames abuses in part on the fact that big government “is run by a lot of people who are not angels” who “together and in the aggregate, do much mischief.” But that’s not the critical issue. After all, lobbyists target officials good and bad. Indeed, the more honest the policymaker, the greater the effort required to make him do the “right” thing.
It is power that, as Lord Acton famously warned, is truly corrupting. Today Washington disposes of $2.6 trillion annually. It taxes nearly as much. Regulations cost almost another trillion dollars a year. Virtually no aspect of American life—how much you are paid, where you live, what food labels say, the tax records you must keep, what you can put in your mailbox, what you can do with your property, what kind of benefits you must pay employees, and much, much more—is affected, if not determined, by Washington.
Americans for Tax Reform figures that Cost of Government Day fell, ironically enough, on July 4 last year. All told, Americans worked 83.4 days to pay Uncle Sam’s bills. They spent 42.2 days laboring for state and local officials. Federal regulations consumed the fruit of another 36.2 days of work. State and local rules soaked up 22.2 more days.
The way government power is exercised also plays a role. Much in Congress happens behind closed doors, at midnight, dictated by a small leadership clique. Members almost never read the bills upon which they are voting and rarely even know many of the legislation’s details. Moreover, with the explosion of administrative delegation, many decisions are made by unelected officials deep within large bureaucracies—themselves often formally independent of presidential control. Only a professional can hope to monitor and influence such a process.
Of course, the early national government possessed enough power and resources to make it worth the attention of business and other interests. Daniel Webster, one of the Senate’s giants, doubled as a paid lobbyist. But most Americans lived without worrying too much about what Uncle Sam was up to. Yes, the Teapot Dome oil reserve was worth exploiting. But Congress was not then standing ready to regulate and tax the oil companies, micromanage auto-fuel economy, determine industry safety standards, and set a myriad of employment, health, and wage conditions.
Organized lobbying became more prominent in the aftermath of the New Deal and World War II as Leviathan truly arose. Now Washington is flooded with people attempting to influence how federal power is exercised.
The Cato Institute’s David Boaz reports that the number of registered lobbying firms jumped from 1701 to 2060 in the last six years; over the same period, lobbyist spending went up 50 percent, and the number of companies with lobbyists rose 58 percent. The number of lobbyists in the nation’s capital approaches 35,000, double the number in 2000. Even more stunning, the number of firms with DC offices jumped tenfold between 1961 and 1982.
It isn’t just ideological libertarians who see the connection between government power and K Street. Jan Witold Baran, former general counsel of the Republican National Committee, observes, “The size of the lobbyist population is proportional to the size of government.” Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair notes that the “astounding growth of the lobbying industry … has tracked the growth of the federal government itself.”
Thus, more and more active lobbyists are a sign of government power, not of public corruption. Of course, if you generally believe in the efficacy of bureaucratic federal rule, then you might see no need for lobbyists. But there is no reason to believe, a priori, that government is going to get it right. To the contrary, the rule of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, expounded by the public choice school of economics, as well as the simple problem of letting some people squander other people’s money and lives, gives much reason to believe that government will more often get it wrong.
When it does, or, more accurately, when people perceive that it does, it is important that they be able to organize politically, write critically, give campaign contributions, and employ lobbyists. There’s nothing nefarious about any of this. Some groups organize to steal from their neighbors. Other groups organize to stop competitors from stealing from them. Some organizations want the government to be their partner. Other businesses want to be left alone.
The overall process often isn’t pretty. As Otto von Bismarck once noted, no one should watch his sausages or laws being made. Nor is the legislative game fair. Some groups and individuals are wealthier, more skilled, better connected. But there is no alternative in a free political system.
The second notable aspect of l’affaire Abramoff is how the Republican majority has lost whatever reformist fervor it had a decade ago. The GOP’s transformation into Democratic clones, rather as the revolutionary pigs come to resemble the reactionary farmers in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, has long been evident. The congressional majority’s calculated campaign to wring as many benefits as possible out of its relationship with K Street symbolically completes the transformation.
As Democrats spent the latter half of the 20th century pushing endless social engineering, from the New Deal to the Great Society, Republicans, seemingly a permanent legislative minority, largely fell into a strategy of “to get along, go along.” The standing joke was that the Democrats could propose burning down the city, bankrupting the country, or turning everyone into serfs, and the Republicans would respond by urging that it be done responsibly, in two years rather than one—while utilizing the private sector to make the process more efficient. In short, it wasn’t obvious why the Republican Party existed.
The 1994 election seemed to change everything, though, in fact, only the freshmen members of the House Republican caucus were particularly reform-minded. There was some progress at first, before legendary Washington inertia took over. After the early, epic spending battles with President Bill Clinton, the Republican Congress restrained spending growth but made little effort to eliminate programs or reverse Leviathan’s continued expansion.
At least a Democratic president gave the GOP congressional leadership a reason to oppose some presidential initiatives. George W. Bush’s election demonstrated the true cost of government without opposition or accountability. The executive was as likely to push spending increases as decreases, which the dutiful Republican legislative majority was loath to deny. And the president, even if he didn’t like a congressional appropriation, such as the transportation bill, was unwilling to disrupt relations by using his veto.
In most cases, however, executive and legislature cheerfully worked in tandem. Fiscal responsibility be damned, both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue wanted a Medicare drug benefit that upped the program’s unfunded liabilities by 50 percent. It was unclear who wanted the bloated, wasteful energy bill more, Congress or the White House. The president advanced Clinton-era initiatives, such as AmeriCorps, pulling Congress along. And no matter how many pork-barrel projects or wasteful earmarks the GOP majority approved, President Bush signed the enactments into law.
Although Republicans continued to mouth platitudes about controlling spending, most had given up any pretense of attempting to protect the public purse. One had to go back to Lyndon Johnson’s unified Democratic government to find a time when domestic spending went up as quickly as under today’s unified Republican government.
The House Republicans, supposedly the party’s ideological core, can’t hide behind the president or Senate. Last fall, Majority Leader Tom DeLay contended that there were no more spending cuts to be had. Until proposals for increased outlays in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina reached ludicrous proportions, fiscal conservatives like Congressmen Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.) found both leadership and rank and file hostile to their advocacy of offsetting cuts.
Now talk of reform is back in the air. For instance, in running for majority leader, Congressman John Boehner (R-Ohio) presented himself as an advocate of “a vision of smaller, more accountable government.” Yet a couple of years ago he declared that the revolution was over. Yes, Republicans won the presidency (1980) and Congress (1994) based on a program of cutting spending. But voters really didn’t mean it. “Faced by electoral defeats in 1996, Republicans stopped talking about agency elimination and government cuts. It turned out that the American people did not want a major reduction of government,” wrote Boehner. So instead of making a case on principle and risking electoral losses, Republicans would entrench themselves by giving the public what Boehner thought it wanted.
Thus, he joined with his GOP colleagues, and the Democrats, in spending America blind. The only difference was that Republicans preferred to rely on borrow-and-spend rather than tax-and-spend to get elected and re-elected. Republicans played the same budget games as Democrats. The GOP rigged voting rules to stifle the opposition, as had the previous Democratic majority.
Moreover, caution became the Republican byword, evident by the GOP’s refusal to take risks on potentially generational-winning concepts such as private Social Security accounts. Particularly shocking was the increase in pork-barrel projects and special earmarks. The former, which avoid the usual budgetary and administrative scrutiny, are up sevenfold over 1998. Transportation earmarks have multiplied thirtyfold since Democrats wrote legislation during the Reagan administration.
The K Street Project, with its emphasis on seizing control of the lobbying sector, is another manifestation of this shift in focus. Some lobbyists back smaller government, but many, if not most, primarily believe in free enterprise for the other guy. Pushing for the appointment of Republicans guarantees little about the policies for which companies or associations will lobby. (Some activists, such as Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, place more emphasis on the ideological transformation of K Street.) Maybe Republicans running business groups will be more likely to support other GOP initiatives, such as cutting taxes. But lobbyists usually act in the interests of their clients, irrespective of personal party preferences.
Indeed, the congressional GOP’s attempt to take over K Street looks more like divvying up the spoils than fighting for principle. In theory, of course, one could enjoy the fruits of victory while attempting to eliminate the spoils. But there’s nothing to suggest that Republican legislators attempted to follow this strategy.
Rather, like Democrats before them —remember Congressman Tony Coehlo? —they viewed squeezing K Street as another means of entrenching the majority, regardless what the majority stood for. Back our initiatives, contribute to our campaigns, and line up support for us, whatever we do. Winning and holding a majority was the end, not the means. The chief disappointment is not that Republicans are so much worse than Democrats but that Republicans falsely claimed to be so much better.
Congressman Flake argues for “a course correction.” One surely is needed. But past attempts to make the policy game fair by re-jiggering the rules—limiting campaign contributions, for instance—merely reshuffled relative political influence. There undoubtedly are changes regarding legislative contacts and lobbyist gifts that would improve the image of Congress. They won’t improve the substance of legislation, however.
The real problem in Washington is substantive. The federal government does far too much and does much of it badly. Legislators serve too long, becoming captives to Washington and willing participants in its culture of spending. Congressional rules, by legitimizing fake emergency spending bills, allowing earmarks, and encouraging midnight legislating, reinforce the bias toward ever expanding government. The basic problem is too much and too concentrated political power.
As such, no package of lobbying reforms is likely to prevent another scandal in the future. Until government shrinks, Washington will—inevitably, understandably, and even appropriately be overrun with lobbyists, which guarantees that there will be future lobbying soap operas to thrill denizens of the nation’s capital again.
Doug Bandow is Vice President of Policy for Citizens Outreach. A collection of his columns, Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Crusade, will be published by Town Forum Press.