Nothing is as deceptively euphoric as Washington in full flower. And in the first days of 2007, the cherry trees, the Congress and the idiots of the nation’s capital were all blossoming.
We saw the blooming cherry trees — a result of botanical confusion that 70-degree winter days meant spring had sprung.
We saw the blooming of a new Congress — as in the first hours of the first day, Democrats made a show of rushing ethics reforms through the House they now control. By a vote of 430-1, as still-embarrassed Republicans had no choice but to go with the flow, the House members voted to ban themselves from taking freebees from lobbyists — no meals, gifts or travel. It was a morality show designed to demonstrate that the evils and abuses symbolized by Tom DeLay’s pal Jack Abramoff are now ancient history.
Then we heard the blooming idiots. They were the pols, pundits and think-tank denizens who gushed that these showy ethics flourishes, once adopted by the Senate, will fundamentally change the craft of politics in the nation’s capital. But, in fact, it will fundamentally change nothing. Because it misses the main point about how Washington really works.
No sooner had the politicians voted to ban themselves from accepting a $50 steak dinner from a special interest lobbyist than they rushed off the floor to perform their daily exercise workout — dialing for dollars.
Still aglow from their show of ethical propriety, these politicians went to their special telephones and picked up their special phone number listing of lobbyists who represent special interests that are regulated by their congressional committees. Then they began their daily rigor — telephoning the lobbyists who can no longer buy them a $50 steak dinner and asking these lobbyists for $10,000 contributions for their next election campaign.
Time out! Did I just say “asking” and “contributions?” Those aren’t the right words to describe this hardcore way Washington really works. Because, at the other end of the phone call, the lobbyists are under no illusion that the members of Congress are merely asking — nor do they think the money that is sought is a mere contribution.
From a Washington lobbyist’s point of view, this is a call from a chairman or key member of the committee that will make decisions that can mean millions of dollars (maybe billions) that benefit the lobbyist’s special interest. Washington players all know better than to utter a promise of action in exchange for money. But the lobbyist knows that, at some point in the next two years, he or she will need to talk with the key member or a staff member about a pending legislative action. And the lobbyist knows that giving money now guarantees the access they will need later. The money may not guarantee a favorable vote — it is more like a poker player who antes up at the start of the deal, just to stay in the game.
Lobbyists see the telephone call from the senator or representative as a “solicitation” (sometimes as pejorative as a “demand”). It is a legal solicitation of what in other circumstances could be considered a bribe. If a member of your county zoning board solicits and gets campaign money from a contractor who wants a zoning change to build a shopping center, both could wind up in jail — and the reporter who breaks the story might wind up with a Pulitzer. But Washington’s pols, press and pundits figure it is just business as usual.
Thus lobbyists know the money they give or help raise for a senator or representative is no mere contribution — it’s an investment. And these investments in politicians often yield spectacular profits — far greater than most investments you or I could make. Theirs come in the form of federal tax breaks, subsidies or regulatory look-the-other-ways.
Of course, this money that goes to special interests comes right out of the U.S. Treasury. That is why a compelling case can be made that the United States already has a form of public financing for Senate and House campaigns. It is a form of backdoor public financing. It is far and away the most costly and the least beneficial to the public interest.
According to Washington’s bottom line, the public’s interest usually turns out to be the least special interest of all.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)