Who Cares If DeLay Bullies Lobbyists?

It’s better than the other way around.

Every Tuesday morning, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., meets with a couple dozen Republican lobbyists. Here is how Nicholas Confessore describes the ritual in the July/August Washington Monthly:

[T]he lobbyists present pass around a list of the [lobbying] jobs available and discuss whom to support. Santorum’s responsibility is to make sure each one is filled by a loyal Republican—a senator’s chief of staff, for instance, or a top White House aide, or another lobbyist whose reliability has been demonstrated. After Santorum settles on a candidate, the lobbyists present make sure it is known whom the Republican leadership favors.

The procedure is even more unembarrassedly thuggish than Confessore—and, in a less-nuanced June 26 Washington Post story, Jim VandeHei and Juliet Eilperin—make it sound. For example, Grover Norquist, chairman of Americans for Tax Reform and a key Santorum ally in this effort, doesn’t just maintain a database on the party affiliations and political contributions of Washington lobbyists. He puts his little lists online. (Click here for the law firms, here for the trade associations, and here for the corporations.)

The best-known heavy in the campaign to force lobby firms to displace Democrats with Republicans is House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. In 1999, DeLay had his wrist slapped by the House Ethics Committee for holding up an intellectual-property vote in order to pressure the Electronics Industries Alliance into hiring a Republican as its president. Although the ethics advisory memorandum didn’t mention DeLay by name, it was widely observed that a member of the House leadership (DeLay was then majority whip) should not need reminding that “one of the fundamental rules of ethics for government service” is that “government officials … are prohibited from taking or withholding any official action on the basis of … partisan affiliation.”

One part of this oft-told story, however, is usually left out: DeLay’s crude pressure tactic didn’t work. The EIA did not hire a Republican. Instead, it went ahead and named as its president Dave McCurdy, an Oklahoma Democrat who had served in the House from 1981 to 1995. As his EIA biography notes, McCurdy had a “distinguished career” in Congress. He co-founded the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group that helped pave the way for the Clinton presidency; he was “the youngest person in Congressional history to chair a full committee”; he was chairman of one especially important committee, the House Intelligence Committee; and he was genuinely influential in shaping military and foreign policy.

All this raises a question that the EIA would prefer not to address: Why would a hotshot like this waste his life petitioning the government on behalf of transistor manufacturers? Because, as Chatterbox previously explained, a disturbing confluence of social forces has elevated the lobbyist far above the mere House member in Washington’s status hierarchy.

Viewed from this angle, the threat posed by the DeLay-Santorum-Norquist “K Street Project” doesn’t seem particularly great. Is it sleazy? Absolutely. Chatterbox would prefer that DeLay be indifferent not only toward business lobbyists’ political affiliations, but also toward their campaign contributions and—most especially—toward their opinions about how legislation should be written. But that isn’t going to happen. (Setting aside the job-placement component, it didn’t happen when the Democrats controlled the House, either.) If one side in this transaction is going to give orders to the other, Chatterbox would much prefer that democratically elected members of Congress be the ones giving the orders. Better that K Street bend over for DeLay than that DeLay bend over for K Street.

That this is not already obvious shows the extent to which Washington, at least subliminally, has bought into the notion of K Street as a fourth branch of government. How dare the GOP dictate political loyalties to the lobbying class!? But political loyalties are what Washington’s lobby industry is based on in the first place. Lobbyists are typically former staffers from Capitol Hill, the White House, or federal agencies; former members of the House or Senate; or, if they’re real hacks, former Cabinet members. (Andrew Card, the current White House chief of staff, ran the auto-makers’ lobby after serving as transportation secretary during the Bush I administration. Matters have not yet degenerated to the point where an actual president will consider a lobbying career, but give it time.) The most successful lobbyists don’t sell their skills so much as they sell their influence, which is based on proximity to power. As the New Republic’s “&c.” blog noted recently, it’s a bit ridiculous to worry that the GOP will undermine meritocracy on K Street because K Street isn’t built on merit. It’s built on connections:

If you’re holding down the top job at a lobbying firm and the Republicans are in power, by definition you’re qualified if powerful Republican politicians say you are and unqualified if they say you’re not. This isn’t heart surgery. This isn’t even the kind of low-level, nuts and bolts lobbying that requires intimate knowledge of the home mortgage deduction or federal environmental regulations. This is glad-handing the House majority leader so that your foot-soldiers get a chance to write the legislation your clients want written.

Does this oversimplify? Do skill and smarts enter into the picture at all? Oh, probably, especially during the pre-Dubya era, when power was more evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans (though typically, lobby firms met this challenge through the non-meritocratic means of putting both parties on the payroll). Republican control of the White House and both houses of Congress strengthened the GOP’s hand in eliminating market inefficiencies on K Street and established what Confessore correctly describes as a self-reinforcing political machine. Republican lobbyists raise money for Republican legislators, thereby increasing the latter’s chances of re-election. The legislators then further tighten their hold on power by placing their protégés—and, increasingly, themselves—in Republican lobby firms, thereby rendering them even more committed to raising cash for the GOP.

But the more lobbyists were reduced to being party apparatchiks—the less free will, and perhaps even skill and merit, came to matter in a lobbying career—the less appealing a career in lobbying would have to become. Who wants to be a cog in a machine? Perhaps more important, who wants to be an apparatchik with no job security? Because no Republican machine would be so efficient as to perpetuate itself forever. Indeed, the less distinguishable the GOP and the business community became, the more likely voters would come to loathe both. Democratic victory in the House, the Senate, the White House, or all three would throw the patronage assembly line violently into reverse. Live by party loyalty, die by party loyalty. Isn’t that insecure, status-impaired scenario more appealing than today’s permanent culture of glamorous and all-powerful Washington lobbyists?

In a Washington subdued by the K Street Project, it’s hard to imagine that a Dave McCurdy would want to lobby for the electronics industry. And it’s just about impossible to imagine that a Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., or a Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., would want to give up a House seat to become a lobbyist. So, maybe—just maybe—the GOP is doing us all a favor by treating Washington lobbyists like the help.