Trouble on K Street

19 January 2006

David Brooks, on PBS's NewsHour, 2004:

"The biggest threat to the Republican majority is the relationship on K Street with corporate lobbyists and the corruption that is entailed in that."

The GOP lobbying scandals just keep on coming, and some Republicans are looking palpably nervous as the 2006 Congressional elections creep closer. According to a recent Pew poll, however, the series of scandals surrounding Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay and up to 60 congressional lawmakers  has thus far failed to register with most of the American public. Perhaps the intrigues are too complex? Or perhaps the steady drip-drip of news about congressional misbehaviour is having the effect of boring the public into apathy? Or maybe it’s that voters are responding with cynicism to the spectacle of the Republican Class of ’94 practicing more of the same pork-barrel politics that they swept into power promising to change. ‘A plague on both your houses!’ yells the suffering American voter.

The last line is certainly the one that the GOP would like to sell you. With Abramoff and Cunningham ready to dish the dirt and implicate so many lawmakers, the GOP tactic has been, not to proclaim the saintliness of their own legislative activities, but to claim that the Democrats are equally implicated; that the problem is endemic but not peculiarly Republican; and that they’re ready to start cleaning house. Think bi-partisan, equal-opportunities corruption.

The problem is – it’s just not true. And every successive attempt to implicate Democratic congressmen and women in the web of lobbying scandals has failed. It’s not that Democrats in Congress are angels. Many of them if given the chance would no doubt turn tricks that would make DeLay blush. But they didn’t get the chance, and there’s a delicious reason why: K Street.

The most successful boycotting campaign in US history, Tom DeLay’s K Street project succeeded in shutting lobbyists off from Democratic lawmakers to a historically unprecedented degree. From 1994 onwards, DeLay, Rick Santorum, Grover Norquist and their associates cajoled, bullied and sweet-talked lobbying firms into dropping their associations with the Democratic Party. Firms were told that if they wanted access to Republican lawmakers they were expected to hire Republicans and fire Democrats. Donations to Democrats were monitored and donors were left in no doubt as to the likely consequences of making contributions to Democratic campaigns . Grover Norquist is quoted as saying he would not be satisfied until even the secretaries in K Street were all-Republican. When the Motion Pictures Association of America hired a Democrat, Dan Glickman, as its chief lobbyist in 2004, the reaction was swift and pulverizing. Norquist described the move as a “studied insult” and Santorum made (thinly) veiled threats to discuss “the consequences … for the movie industry”.  Within weeks of the appointment, House Republicans had removed $1.5 billion in pending tax relief from the movie industry. Shortly thereafter, Glickman personally made out a check for $500, to assist in the reelection of Rick Santorum.

The total domination of K Street was a coup that has now become a liability. It is not much more than a year since the Presidential elections of 2004, but times have emphatically changed. The Republican triumphalism that led many to dream of a lasting Republican majority has been replaced by a widespread realization that this administration has overreached itself on Iraq, social security, judicial appointments and domestic civil rights curtailments, among other things. The implosion of the K-Street project is particularly symbolic in this context: intended as the foundation stone of a Republican majority that would stand for generations, it may be the stone that finally drags them down, into opposition and out of the White House.

P.S. While on the subject of GOP corruption, let’s not forget Karl Rove … apparently Patrick Fitzgerald hasn’t.

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