Opinion: The Seduction of Washington’s Big-Money Bonanza

Cashing in shouldn’t be the reward — or the goal — for public service

Ivanka Trump has won a series of lucrative Chinese trademarks since her father was elected president, yet another conflict of interest for the administration that is fueling cynicism about public service, Shapiro writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Ivanka Trump has won a series of lucrative Chinese trademarks since her father was elected president, yet another conflict of interest for the administration that is fueling cynicism about public service, Shapiro writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Posted May 2, 2017 at 5:03am

We are entering the season when fledgling 2018 congressional candidates reveal their Capitol Hill ambitions in Facebook posts, tiny rallies in makeshift headquarters and even old-fashioned declarations on the courthouse steps. These candidate announcements will be brimming over with earnest words about “public service,” “the wonderful people of this district,” and “bringing change to Washington.”

Lurking beneath the boilerplate oratory is a more complex set of motivations explaining why a candidate in his or her prime earnings years is willing to gamble away the next 18 months in the uncertain quest for a job paying $174,000. Idealism and ideology often do play a role, but so does a hunger for fame and a restlessness with one’s current life.

But another factor may be increasingly influencing these declarations of candidacy in both parties — a passion to become part of the big-money bonanza that is Washington in 2017.

These days, it often seems like serving in Congress is merely a required apprenticeship for the much more lucrative profession of lobbyist or — to use a favored euphemism — “strategic consultant.”

Make no mistake: Former officials have glided down the corridors of avarice since the days of Washington superlawyers like Tommy Corcoran, a former member of FDR’s “Brain Trust,” and Clark Clifford, a close adviser to Harry Truman.

But there was a sense that you should not be too shameless about the buckraking. When former top Ronald Reagan aide Mike Deaver appeared on the cover of Time magazine lobbying the government from the back of his limousine, it turned out that his lack of discretion was a symptom of his then-hidden alcoholism.

Show them the money

The difference is that these days everyone in politics is signaling that only schnooks resist getting rich after the martyrdom of serving in government. Hillary Clinton would almost certainly be president right now if she had not given three 2013 speeches for $675,000 to Goldman Sachs. Earlier, while Hillary was serving as secretary of State, “Bill Clinton Inc.” (as aide Doug Band described it in a 2011 memo) had become the family business.

All this brings us to the kerfuffle over Barack Obama’s plans to give a $400,000 speech to Cantor Fitzgerald, a Wall Street firm. Defending Obama’s decision, former White House strategist David Axelrod told The New York Times, “I don’t think former presidents necessarily take vows of poverty, or should.”

Of course, having already accepted a $65-million book advance with his wife Michelle, the former president was not exactly donning sackcloth. Only by the standards of Donald Trump or Bill Clinton is being paid more for a single speech than many Americans earn in a decade a selfless gesture.

Obama has the legal right to maximize his post-White House income any way he chooses. But, unlike the scandal-tinged Bill Clinton, Obama left office being hailed as a moral exemplar by millions of Democrats. As a result, Obama should understand that his ill-considered efforts to avoid taking a “vow of poverty” contribute to the current “money talks” ethos in America.

One of the more chilling legacies of the Trump presidency is that politically interested young people may innocently assume that his conduct in office is normal. Think of all the future cynicism that will be sowed by Trump’s cavalier attitude toward any conflict-of-interest limitations on his global greed.

Every day brings a new outrage.

Was the sudden come-visit-Washington invitation to Rodrigo Duterte, the thuggish president of the Philippines, a reflection of Trump’s love of autocrats and contempt for international human rights? Or was the motivation connected with the glittering 57-story Trump Tower in Manila that opened last November?

If the Trump White House were effectively organized, it would probably need an Office of Coincidences. This new White House office would be in charge of explaining away such odd happenings as Ivanka Trump unexpectedly winning a series of lucrative Chinese trademarks since her father was elected president.

Not always the way

There was a time when things were different. And if Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower seem too long ago, then think about how Jimmy Carter has conducted himself in the 36 years since he involuntarily left the White House.

Sure there were scandals. But, by Trump standards, there was something quaint about Truman’s military aide accepting seven deep freezers for his friends. Or White House Chief of Staff Sherman Adams having to resign over taking a vicuna coat from a businessman in trouble with the government.

In another era, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price’s ethically questionable health care investments while a member of the House Ways and Means Committee would still be in the headlines. But Price — that rare Trump official who is neither a retired general nor a billionaire — seems a bit player against the backdrop of the Trump family.

One of the more troubling traditions of Washington is the widespread belief that there is no difference between conduct that is barely legal and conduct that is ethical. In short, if you are not being actively investigated by the FBI, then your entire life is morally blameless.

There is an idea embedded in the American tradition of paying members of Congress an upper-middle-class salary rather than compensating them like corporate CEOs. And it is that the satisfactions of a life of public service more than equal the fruits of a life built around profit-maximization.

What a laudable and old-fashioned notion.  

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.