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Commentary | JONATHAN CHAIT

Hustling on K Street

Under the Republicans, it's all for sale.

June 24, 2005|JONATHAN CHAIT

When faced with evidence of corruption and sleaze by such Republican stalwarts as Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay, conservatives have responded in three ways.

The first is to deny the accusations altogether. The second is to concede them, but insist the rot is confined to a few bad apples. The third, favored by the most independent-minded conservatives, is to declare that power has made Republicans just as corrupt as Democrats. The Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson, articulating this latter response, wrote that the "closed, parasitic culture of convenience -- with its revolving doors, front groups, pay-offs, expense-account comfort and ideological cover stories -- is as essential to the way Republican Washington works, ten years after the [Republican] Revolution, as ever it was to Democratic Washington."

Sorry, but this won't do either. The influence of corporate lobbyists over government is not just as bad under the GOP as it ever was under Democrats. It's far worse.

A remarkable report by Jeffrey Birnbaum of the Washington Post shows that George W. Bush's presidency has ushered in a golden age for K Street lobbyists. Over the last five years, the number of registered lobbyists in the nation's capital has more than doubled. Starting salaries for lobbyists have shot up from $200,000 to $300,000, and the fees charged by some have doubled.

Birnbaum cited Hewlett-Packard, which nearly doubled its lobbying expenditures to $734,000, and won tax breaks worth millions. As HP's top lobbyist told Birnbaum, "We're trying to take advantage of the fact that Republicans control the House, the Senate and the White House."

Business is booming because there seemingly are no limits to what Republicans are willing to do on behalf of their constituents. Last summer, Bush signed a corporate tax bill that amounted to a series of naked giveaways. (One lobbyist involved confessed that the bill amounted to "a new level of sleaze.") The Post's Thomas Edsall reported that one powerful tax lobbyist collected a bushel of breaks for his clients and collected $8.69 million in fees for that one bill. No doubt it was money well spent.

Virtually every element of the Republican agenda has the effect -- I suspect the intent, but I can't prove that -- of enriching special interests. Bush has enacted five tax cuts, a Medicare prescription drug bill stuffed with billions in corporate subsidies, tort reform, bankruptcy restrictions, various tariffs and regulatory rollbacks enacted by administration appointees who frequently oversee the industries they once represented.

How is this any different than the arrangement that prevailed when Democrats controlled Washington? The Democratic agenda often ran directly against the interests of K Street. When President Clinton in 1993 raised taxes on the rich and clamped down on spending, there were no economic interests who stood to benefit. His healthcare plan benefited a few companies and enraged many more, who waged a successful fight to kill it. Only his passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement engendered much lobbying support, and even that provoked significant opposition from unions and some corporations that stood to lose from free trade.

Democrats, of course, are plenty compromised by their constituent interest groups. The difference is that their interest groups often disagree. Democrats receive support from business as well as labor, consumer groups, environmentalists and so on. Some Democrats are tools of business, others are tools of labor. But there's enough internal disagreement that the party is at least capable of trying to act in the broader interest.

Republicans, on the other hand, have no economic constituency besides business. As a result, the GOP has been completely captured by its component interests. Under previous GOP presidents, there was some shame attached to blatant corporate giveaways. But Republicans such as Bush, DeLay, Karl Rove and Grover Norquist have a new ethos of total partisan warfare, in which the business lobby is their ironclad ally.

This ethos is emblemized by the "K Street Project," a GOP effort to force lobbying firms to donate to and hire Republicans exclusively. The party expects total loyalty from K Street, and it gives it in return. The old, cozy bipartisan lobbying culture that prevailed when Democrats held power was sleazy enough. But those Democrats never contemplated anything like this.

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