Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2003 / 21 Elul 5763
The amazing clout of lobbyists swarming around Capitol Hill
HBO's new pseudo-reality series "K Street" offers an amusing peek inside the world of Washington power. However, its view inside the curtain that shrouds the real K Street is about as close to reality as "M*A*S*H" is to a real war zone.
As a journalist who covers the real K Street, a stark boulevard that is to the world of power brokering and influence peddling what Wall Street is to high finance, I am delighted to see Hollywood take it seriously enough to make a series about it.
But after watching the first episode Sunday, I wonder whether coproducers Steven Soderbergh, the Oscar-winning director of "Traffic," and Golden Globe-winning actor George Clooney will be serious enough to show the dealmaking, back scratching, logrolling and browbeating that goes on in the real K Street.
Washington insiders must be amused, for example, to see how closely the premiere show's story line came to revealing a brutal reality on today's K Street, the pressures that congressional Republicans have begun to apply somewhat brazenly to lobbying firms to make them more pro-Republican.
Playing somewhat fictionalized versions of themselves, the husband-wife, right-left team of Mary Matalin and James Carville have a conflict. Matalin is upset that her husband has decided to provide debate preparation training through their fictional bipartisan consulting firm for Howard Dean, a real-time Democratic presidential candidate.
Matalin dispatches an aide, "Maggie Morris," played by actress Mary McCormack, to give a heads-up to the firm's concerned Republican clients that Carville is acting on his own.
We then see Morris soothing Republican Sens. Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Playing themselves, the senators sound a good deal more good-natured about this political faux pas than I imagine they would sound as their real-life selves. Santorum is a key figure in Republican efforts to build a new power base, beginning with K Street money and influence. He holds weekly meetings with lobbyists, for example, to review how many Republicans the lobbying firms have hired in key positions and how many Democrats they have dumped.
Although congressional Democrats were quite good at milking K Street when their party was in charge, the landscape changed after Republicans took control of both houses of Congress in 1994.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and other conservative activists launched their "K Street Strategy": Trade associations were forced to oust Democrats if they wanted to do business with the new Republican Congress.
In 1995, DeLay invited lobbyists into his office and showed them their place on his list of the 400 largest Political Action Committees, along with the amounts and percentages of money they had recently given to each party. "If you want to play in our revolution," DeLay told The Washington Post, "you have to live by our rules."
It's legal too, although the House Ethics Committee reminded all members in 1999 after an investigation of DeLay that fundamental ethics rules prohibit "taking or withholding any official action on the basis of ... partisan affiliation." Oh. Right. It's easy to forget.
The goal, wrote Nicholas Confessore, an editor at The Washington Monthly, in the magazine's July/August issue, is a much larger movement to build a powerful new force in Washington politics: a new Republican machine.
"Like the urban Democratic machines of yore, this one is built upon patronage, contracts and one-party rule," he wrote. "But unlike legendary Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, who rewarded party functionaries with jobs in the municipal bureaucracy, the GOP is building its machine outside government, among Washington's thousands of trade associations and corporate offices, their tens of thousands of employees, and the hundreds of millions of dollars in political money at their disposal."
Instead of ward supervisors, the new patronage jobs are high-ranking positions in K Street lobbying firms. (Lucrative jobs too. A deputy Cabinet undersecretary might earn $140,000, a top oil lobbyist can make $400,000.)
Lobbyists provide congressional leaders with eyes, ears, advice and feedback unimpeded by the pesky rules, regulations, inspectors general, congressional oversight and nosey reporters who swarm around their government counterparts.
Whether lobbyists serve democracy or subvert it is another matter. But a couple of things are certain: The clout of lobbyists grows whenever the public is paying the least attention. When people look the other way, a different kind of Golden Rule takes over: Whoever has the gold makes the rules.
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