The Power of the Lobby

How Money Spoils It All

Posted February 9, 2009 at 3:23pm

Even with the greed and excess of Wall Street temporarily grabbing the country’s attention, it won’t be long before the attention will return to Washington, D.C., and special interest money.

Washington Post editor Robert Kaiser’s new book has arrived at a good time then. “So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government” examines how the lobbying business grew and became intertwined with American politics. Kaiser follows the story of lobbyist Gerald Cassidy and his firm to find that the move of government employees to the corporate world, added to the rising costs of campaign financing, have let lobbying overstep its boundaries.

The modern history of American lobbying becomes real through Kaiser’s description of the history of Cassidy & Associates. As one of the first major lobbying firms (opening in 1975), it in many ways was responsible for the influence of earmarks.

Kaiser begins his book by focusing on the life of Cassidy and his company, switching back and forth to the connection between lobbying and politics. As Cassidy’s firm grows, so does the lobbying business and its influence.

While speaking about his book at Politics & Prose Bookstore last week, Kaiser offered further context for his reasons behind the growth of the lobby business. He explained that lawmakers and their staff were, in part, jealous of wealthy lobbyists’ big, expensive homes along the Potomac River. The lure of lobbyists’ relatively larger salaries was one reason the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street began to turn at a quickening pace. K Street’s influence ballooned as these new lobbyists with their political ties gained easier access to Congressional contacts. While there is now a roadblock requiring Congressional staff to take a one-year hiatus before lobbying, Kaiser argues that it is not enough.

In his book, Kaiser also describes the connections between Members of Congress and their perpetual campaigns. Campaign costs have skyrocketed over the past half-century, he writes, with $40 million as the average cost for a Senate race in “medium-sized states” such as Colorado and North Carolina.

Kaiser quotes Sidney Blumenthal, who wrote about politics for the Boston Phoenix and published a book in 1980 titled “The Permanent Campaign.”

“The permanent campaign is the political ideology of our age. … It makes government into an instrument designed to sustain an elected official’s public popularity,” he wrote. This obsession with the power struggle and raising money leaves less time for policymaking.

In regards to his book, Kaiser explained to the bookstore audience that he “set out on a classic reporter’s mission” to discover what the term “Washington lobbyist” meant.

Kaiser quotes Cassidy, who comments on the American people’s ineffectiveness and loss of control over Congress. “There has been a huge redistribution of income and you can’t blame just the Republicans, because it has happened through Democratic presidencies, and through Democratic and Republican Congresses,” Cassidy said. “It’s just true, largely because [poorer citizens] have less reputation — you look at the movements out there, there is no anti-hunger movement out there, there is no committee on the Hill looking into poverty.”

Kaiser follows up Cassidy’s remark with a quote from then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) in 1982. “Poor people don’t make campaign contributions.”

Washington has always been influenced in some way by power and money, and Kaiser acknowledges this. It is not as if this concept is new, but the extent of the relationship between the government and the private sector is eye-opening.

Kaiser offers legal solutions to lessen the influence of lobbying in politics. To squash the obsession with campaign financing, he suggests public funding from the Treasury, which worked from the 1970s onward until former President Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign. He also suggests a law to set a limit on the amount of donations from lobbyists. As for the “cooling off period,” Kaiser argues it should be longer, perhaps even five years.

“We can’t eliminate lobbying, and we shouldn’t,” said Kaiser, referring to protection from the First Amendment. “Lobbying is not a bad profession per se, and lobbyists are not bad people.”

Nevertheless, Kaiser said, there still needs to be some change in regards to how lobbying works. It may not be a quick fix, either.

Lobbying “is a bipartisan effort,” Kaiser said. “This is the culture that we have contributed to and need to deal with.”