If You Don't Know K Street, You Don't Know Jack
In 1994, the right wing gained control over the House of Representatives on the strength of a series of reforms embodied in the so-called "Contract with America." The contract ostensibly "aimed to restore the faith and trust of the American people in their government" and end the "cycle of scandal and disgrace" in government. A year later, then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was already plotting to breach that contract by undertaking a project to develop cozier relations with Washington, D.C., lobbyists.
High-minded policy goals would take a backseat in DeLay's pay-to-play system, where the success of lobbyists would be dictated not by how compelling a case they could make, but rather by how willing they would be to line the pockets of DeLay and his colleagues. Conceptualized as a tool for the right-wing preservation of power, the "K Street Strategy," as it became known, created the culture in which Jack Abramoff's criminal activity was encouraged and rewarded.
HOW THE K STREET PROJECT WORKED: In his dealings with K Street lobbyists, DeLay explicitly stated he would operate by "the old adage of punish your enemies and reward your friends." (To gain influence over legislation, trade associations and corporate lobbyists were ordered to do three things: (1) refuse to hire Democrats, (2) hire only deserving Republicans as identified by the congressional leadership and (3) contribute heavily to Republican coffers.) Despite being admonished by the House Ethics Committee numerous times for his conduct, DeLay's pay-to-play machine continued to plow full-speed ahead. With federal benefits up for sale, corporations quickly identified the need to need to hire more lobbyists, giving rise to one of the greatest growth industries in America. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, proudly proclaimed in 2002 that [conservatives] "will have 90-10 [percentage advantage in staffing] on K Street and 90-10 business giving."
IDEAS TOOK A BACKSEAT: Lost in the pay-to-play system is any concern for good governance. In a recent editorial, the Wall Street Journal said the real problem "isn't about lobbyists so much as it is the atrophying of its principles. As their years in power have stretched on, House Republicans have become more passionate about retaining power than in using that power to change or limit the federal government. Gathering votes for serious policy is difficult and tends to divide a majority. Re-election unites them, however, so the leadership has gradually settled for raising money on K Street and satisfying Beltway interest groups to sustain their incumbency. This strategy has maintained a narrow majority, but at the cost of doing anything substantial. ... Ideas are an afterthought, when they aren't an inconvenience."
IMBALANCE OF POWER: The K Street scheme had a dramatic influence on policy. While it is well-recognized that business interests profited from the K Street Strategy, less attention is paid to those who lost out. As Michael Crowley, a writer for the New Republic, recently noted on C-Span, "In times like these when we have a budget crunch, it's not subsidies for corporations or tax loopholes that go; it's Medicaid and aid and health care for low-income, disadvantaged people who don't really have lobbies in Washington with the clout equivalent to some of America's biggest corporations."
The last few months of Congress are a testament to that fact. In the name of cutting federal spending, Congress recently proposed a budget trimming Medicaid funding, federal child-support enforcement and student loans to save $40 billion. But the right wing quickly turned around and distributed these savings back out in the form of business-friendly tax cuts.
A SYSTEM MADE FOR ABRAMOFF: Jack Abramoff was "closely associated with the K Street Project." In fact, the system was a perfect fit for Abramoff, given his stated desire to shun low-paying political activist work in favor of striking it rich. "I wanted to make money," he said.
A former chairman of the College Republican National Committee, Abramoff decided that his connections in the conservative movement could help him at a time when Republicans were rising to power in Washington. Abramoff developed a motley crew of right-wing allies, including anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, Christian right-wing leader Ralph Reed and a host of conservative lawmakers. "He is someone on our side,'' said DeLay chief of staff Ed Buckham. "He has access to DeLay." And Abramoff played the game as DeLay wanted it played. By securing clients with deep pockets and federal legislative interests, Abramoff was able to contribute heavily to Republican leaders (raising at least $120,000 for the 2004 Bush campaign).
What eventually brought Abramoff down was how audaciously he worked the system. He now concedes that he illegally "offered and provided a stream of things of value to public officials in exchange for official acts and influence and agreements to provide official action and influence." In return for legislative and personal favors, the things of value he provided to lawmakers included "foreign and domestic travel, golf fees, frequent meals, entertainment, election support for candidates for government office, employment for relatives of officials and campaign contributions."
RAMPANT ABUSE OF POWER: New York Times columnist David Brooks explained, "The real problem wasn't DeLay, it was DeLayism, the whole culture that merged K Street with the Hill and held that raising money is the most important way to contribute to the team." The culture permeated the entire congressional leadership; they were willing buyers of what lobbyists were selling. "We simply have too much power," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), speaking of lawmakers' ability to target tax dollars for particular projects, contractors or campaign donors.
The current race for the majority leader post left vacant by DeLay reveals the far-reaching impact of the K Street culture. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., shared connections to Abramoff and has taken other actions to benefit corporate lobbyists. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, "has strong connections to lobbyists: He met weekly with leading lobbyists to enlist their support and discuss strategy during his four years as House Republican Conference chairman, from 1995 to 1998." Very few of the congressmen who have been in positions of power over the last decade have clean hands. Many of them share the pay-to-play values of Tom DeLay and the K Street ideology of Jack Abramoff.