Ballot Box

Rascally Marc Racicot

Jan. 10 Addendum: Shortly after this column was published, Marc Racicot conceded the point, promising that he would not personally lobby members of Congress. But this concession offers cold comfort. At best, it’s a return to the Haley Barbour/Ron Brown conflict-of-interest model. (See below.) Racicot’s corporate clients at Bracewell & Patterson will still pay his RNC salary. He will still be working to advance their interests, only from behind the scenes. Even if Racicot honors his unenforceable pledge not to lobby directly, there is nothing to prevent him from passing inside information he gains from his official position on to his clients or from advising colleagues at his firm about how to lobby legislators and administration officials. Government officials will still know who Racicot’s clients are and still have an incentive to make them happy. If Racicot wishes to behave ethically, he should resign from his firm and accept the RNC’s reported offer of $500,000 a year for full-time work. Not so long ago, even corporate lobbyists would have considered that an ample salary.

The political reforms passed after Watergate had two somewhat paradoxical consequences. On the positive side, outright, cash-in-a-bag corruption became quite rare in Washington. On the negative side, sleaze got much more inventive. The fruits of this trend included such instruments of dubious virtue and technical legality as corporate soft money, “honoraria” for speech-making, campaign contribution “bundling,” insider stock deals for members of Congress, and ever more blatant forms of influence-peddling.

From close up, this quarter-century process of shady innovation appears as a series of tiny steps. One day, a lobbyist blows off a disclosure requirement, and no one finds out. A year later, another lobbyist cites the precedent and argues that the rule is unenforceable. A prosecution for non-compliance results in an acquittal. Eventually, lobbyists as a group come to regard disclosure rules as purely voluntary. On any given day, the building appears much as it did the day before. Meanwhile, an invisible army of termites is gnawing away. With a bit of perspective, you can see the structure sinking into the ground.

A medium-sized ethical timber collapsed last month when President Bush appointed his friend Marc Racicot as chairman of the Republican National Committee. In a footnote to the announcement, the administration explained that Racicot, the former governor of Montana, would accept no salary for the position because he would continue to work as a highly paid lobbyist for the Houston-based law firm of Bracewell & Patterson. In defending this arrangement, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer pointed out,

“There’s been ample history on both the Democratic and Republican side of chairmen being involved in either lobbying or having outside sources of income.”

That’s true, but misleading. There may indeed be a precedent, as Fleischer said, for party chairmen maintaining a connection to their private partnerships and even lobbying on the side. What has had no precedent, until now, is a party chairman working as a hired-gun lobbyist openly, blatantly, and without any shame. In the past, party chairman either did not lobby or lobbied quietly. They never defended the practice. 

Consider this progression: Bob Strauss theoretically didn’t lobby while serving as Democratic National Chairman in the 1970s—though he steered plenty of clients to his partners at Akin Gump, which opened a Washington office to coincide with his appointment. Ron Brown remained a salaried partner at Patton, Boggs & Blow while serving in the same position. But Brown also claimed—not truthfully—that he didn’t personally lobby on behalf of clients. Haley Barbour, when he became Republican National Chairman in 1993, promised to sever his ties to his firm, Barbour, Griffiths & Rogers, in order to not be like Ron Brown. In fact, Barbour, like Brown, continued to draw a salary from his firm for the four years he was at the RNC. Don Fowler, DNC chair in the mid-1990s, lobbied for clients on the sly and was such a colorless figure that no one found him out until after he was gone. The current Democratic chairman, Terry McAuliffe, maintains that he doesn’t lobby at all—but no one will be too surprised a few years from now if it turns out that he did after all.

Now we have a Republican National Committee chairman who publicly states that he intends to divide his time between official GOP business and professional lobbying for corporate clients—though he did high-mindedly drop Enron when it ceased paying its bills. The potential for abuse here is fairly staggering. As head of the RNC, Racicot will control the purse strings for Republican House and Senate candidates. GOP legislators will surely know who his clients are. If Chairman Racicot needs to do anything so crude as explicit “lobbying” to promote their interests with Congress or the White House, it will indicate an incredible lack of tact and subtlety on his part.

The fact that Racicot holds such powerful sway over congressional Republicans, and that he’ll have top-level inside information about their plans, will make those corporations that have not already hired him eager to make up for the RNC salary that he has said he will forgo as a “volunteer.” By condoning this unholy arrangement, President Bush has made his friend the quintessential “man to see” in Washington. It’s no wonder Haley Barbour—the former top-dog Republican influence-peddler—is now talking about leaving town to run for governor of Mississippi. (Barbour says it’s time to “give something back.” Perhaps he could have taken slightly less in the first place.) 

The familiar defense of hypocrisy is that it’s the tribute vice pays to virtue. If you do wrong, better at least to recognize it as such. But in Washington, hypocrisy is also the way abashed vice opens the door to unabashed vice. Citing what was only recently a furtive practice, Racicot openly embraces it. In this way Washington over time becomes less like Paris, where similar billed-by-the-hour services are merely prevalent, and more like Amsterdam, where they’re matter-of-factly accepted. Racicot’s announcement still generated a bit of an outcry, which shows that this particular ethical norm hasn’t been completely erased. We’ll know it has been when one of the parties appoints a corporate lobbyist as its part-time chairman, and no one but Fred Wertheimer is outraged enough to complain.

Something similar seems to be happening with respect to the pending action by the Senate Ethics Committee against Bob Torricelli, who recently escaped indictment for bribery. People have long complained that both congressional ethics committees are, in the stock phrase, “toothless watchdogs.” But as recently as several years ago, these committees were still capable of barking quite noisily and with real consequences. Their proceedings contributed greatly to the demise of such figures as House Speaker Jim Wright, Sen. Bob Packwood, and two members of the Keating Five.

With the Republican takeover of Congress, however, the congressional ethics committees dropped much of the pretense of disinterested ethical policing. Faced with charges that Newt Gingrich misused a tax-exempt organization—and lied about it in testimony—the House Ethics Committee let him off with a fine and a wrist slap. At the time, realists noted that Republican House members weren’t about to kill off the speaker who gave them power for the first time in four decades.

Such skepticism has now degenerated further, into a nearly universal assumption that the Senate Ethics Committee won’t even pretend to take the Torricelli charges referred to it by a federal prosecutor seriously. Torricelli has broken Senate ethics rules about as brazenly as you can, by accepting and not disclosing gifts worth well in excess of the $50 limit. But hey, he’s up for re-election in 2002, and Democrats can’t spare a seat. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has essentially said that the Torch’s troubles are behind him. No one expects Harry Reid, who chairs the ethics panel and was a contributor to Torricelli’s legal defense fund, to lift a finger against his friend. The watchdog can’t even bark anymore. It’s chilling with Buddy now.

The larger ethical picture of Washington mirrors these smaller ones. When Bill Clinton said he wanted to create the most ethical administration in history, many people took him at his word and were gravely disappointed when he did something close to the opposite. When George W. Bush promised to restore honor and dignity to the White House, many of us took him less seriously and now find ourselves less than entirely surprised by his nomination of a new GOP fixer in chief. The way has been paved for a president able to hasten Washington’s seemingly inexorable ethical decline with no hypocrisy whatsoever.