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Business as Usual? Crossing the Line Between Politics and Policy

March 30, 1997|Russ Baker | Russ Baker has written about politics for George and for the Columbia Journalism Review

NEW YORK — On a recent day, Speaker Newt Gingrich's former spokesman, Tony Blankley, served coffee in his Virginia home, along with a dose of his familiar spin. The topic was a controversial political consultant, Joseph R. Gaylord, and his role in the speaker's day-to-day affairs. Blankley, ever the Gingrich loyalist, downplayed Gaylord's influence, even insisting he's rarely in the Capitol. Yet, at that exact moment, across the Potomac, Gaylord was spotted by a Democratic staffer chain-smoking in a House of Representatives bathroom.

Outside Washington, few people have heard of Gaylord. Yet, in the corridors of power, his footsteps echo loudly. "Joe Gaylord is empowered to supervise my activities, set my schedule, advise me on all aspects of my life and career," Gingrich once instructed in a memo.

"He's the best inside player in U.S. House politics without being a member himself," says one GOP operative.

This dealmeister's behind-the-scenes power violates congressional rules and ethical standards but it also reveals a lot about the culture of Washington now--particularly how life in the Capitol has become one long election campaign. The avalanche of revelations regarding the Clinton campaign's finance shenanigans has buried a stark reality: Congressional Republicans, led by powerful non-members like Gaylord, have been adept at selling off government to the highest bidder.

Now, the line between winning office and serving in office has become so blurred that strategists and fund-raisers like Gaylord can literally move into the speaker's office.

Gaylord, who masterminded the "contract with America," is an independent political consultant. Yet, for years he has effectively run Gingrich's office--in violation of House rules, since he is not a House employee and, therefore, not subject to provisions governing conflicts of interest and other concerns.

Today, he is a dominant force in the speaker's legislative business, "the de facto chief of staff," according to several current and recently departed staffers. One source, currently on staff, says Gaylord has somewhat reduced his physical presence in the office in response to increased scrutiny, but not his place in the decision-making process.

Gaylord mapped the money side of the contract campaign, and figured out how to repackage the GOP's corporate-friendly agenda to the masses. "Newt raised, under Joe's guidance, between events and letters, $100 million in the last election cycle, which is more than anyone besides the president has ever raised," says Blankley. Once the Republicans gained power, Gaylord supervised an effort to use government to pay back those contributors through business-friendly legislation. (Sound familiar?)

The heavily advertised contract with America contained 10 fairly brief items. But the legislation that followed was massively expanded to include many big-donor-friendly provisions unknown to the public. Gaylord was a key participant in both phases--the campaign and the bill writing. When one Gingrich advisor suggested putting education into the contract, Gaylord vetoed the idea.

"The actual day-to-day supervision of the writing of the legislation was done by aides to [Majority Leader Dick] Armey, by a representative of the Republican National Committee and by Joe Gaylord," reports veteran Washington chronicler Elizabeth Drew in her book, "Showdown." Under Gaylord, the contract was expanded into a veritable pottage, including such things as a capital-gains tax cut and funding of the Reagan-era's wacky "Star Wars" missile-defense shield.

Drew also describes a meeting in Gingrich's office to discuss the Medicare bill, in which those assembled went through the proposal "line by line." The group included Gaylord. A review of that bill shows a key provision allowing controversial Medical Savings Accounts, trumpeted by Golden Rule Insurance, whose PAC and executives gave a combined $150,000 to GOPAC, $42,500 to Friends of Newt Gingrich and $600,000 in GOP soft money.

The blatancy of the business takeover was especially transparent when telecommunications entrepreneur Donald G. Jones worked as a "volunteer" member of Gingrich's staff, on a bill of direct importance to his business; the Telecommunications Act of 1995 was arguably the most important bill of the 104th Congress. Jones also used Gingrich's office to set up congressional trips to New Zealand--where he was bidding for a huge chunk of that country's telecommunications market. He was such a regular presence that he even had an official congressional identification card.

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