We Are All Choctaw

Jack Abramoff, symptom.

In the June 22 Washington Post, Jeffrey H. Birnbaum reported that the number of registered lobbyists has “more than doubled.” Perhaps you think that refers to the large increase in lobbying activity that began in the 1970s, a long-term trend whose most visible measure has been a proliferation of expensive restaurants in Washington, D.C. (Before 1970, your typical lobbyist’s idea of haute cuisine was Blackie’s House of Beef or Trader Vic’s.) But Birnbaum’s statistic actually covers a much briefer time frame. The number of registered lobbyists has doubled—are you sitting down?—since 2000. Let me say that a different way. Since George W. Bush became president, the group of people whose numbers constitute the most reliable index I know of the extent to which government policy is for sale has increased 100 percent. Bush’s presidency hasn’t done much for the economy nationwide, but in Washington it has produced a gold rush.

This raises an important question. Is Jack “I don’t want sniper letterhead” Abramoff, the paleface Republican lobbyist whose fleecing of the Mississippi Choctaw alone will earn him a permanent place in the history of Washington chicanery (though not, alas, his desired sobriquet, “Scholar of Talmudic Studies“)—is this high-school contemporary of mine a phenomenon unto himself? I submit that he is not. Spectacular as his achievements may be (click here and here for the latest tranche of Abramoff collectibles), Abramoff is but a leading indicator.

We may chuckle with contempt at the unwary Native Americans who let Abramoff take them to the cleaners, but Abramoff is only one lobbyist—one of the comparatively modest 16,342 registered lobbyists in business before Dubya moved from Austin to D.C. He is not one of the registered lobbyists who doubled that fraternity’s ranks to 34,785 between 2000 and 2005. We have all of us allowed private toll booths to be placed in front of every road leading to Washington and watched the proceeds pour into the pockets of private individuals who in many cases are selling friendships acquired through what was supposed to be public service. For those passing through this revolving door, lobbying is a form of legalized prostitution, selling something—democracy—that is supposed to exist outside the monetary realm. (I should here point out that the term “registered lobbyist” refers only to people who directly contact members of Congress and their staffs on legislative matters; it does not refer to the hordes of lobbyists who avoid the registration requirement by working only the executive branch.)

That this enlargement of Washington’s parasitic economy has occurred under a conservative Republican president who tries to pass himself off as a Washington outsider is no small irony. One would expect the growth in lobbyists to be more rapid under a Democratic presidency, because Democrats are more inclined ideologically to raise taxes and impose regulations, thereby “necessitating” the hiring of business lobbyists for defensive purposes. To whatever extent the growth in lobbying reflected a growth in government activity—best measured by spending—it would be logical for that growth to be most rapid when a Democrat was in the White House.

In fact, though, the growth in the number of registered lobbyists under Dubya appears to have been about as brisk as it was during Bill Clinton’s second term. It’s hard to know for certain because in 2000 the Senate’s public-records office winnowed from its total those instances in which individual lobbyists were counted twice due to slight variations in how their names were recorded in separate filings (Example: “Jack Abramoff” and “Jack A. Abramoff“). If you ignore the winnowing, then between 1996 and 2001 the number of registered lobbyists doubled from 10,798 to at least 23,791. Maddeningly, Congress doesn’t compile figures on the number of lobbyists prior to 1988; what numbers it does have from 1988 to 1996 count only the number of clients and “registrants” (i.e., lobby firms or individual businesses or other organizations that employ in-house lobbyists). Assuming, however, that the relationship between the growth of clients and registrants and the growth of lobbyists remains roughly constant—extrapolating from available 1996-2004 figures, the latter is twice as brisk as the former—then the proliferation of lobbyists was perhaps half as great during the earlier period than during the later period. Washington’s culture of baksheesh is reproducing at a brisker pace.

This is not occurring by accident. Conservatives, who used to bewail the permanent culture of Washington, now tolerate big government. Indeed, Jonathan Chait pointed out in the May 16 New Republic that non-defense spending, as a percentage of the economy, actually declined during the Clinton administration (from 17 percent of GDP to 15.5 percent) but increased slightly during the Bush administration (from 15.5 percent of GDP to 16.5 percent). This calculation omits Bush’s post-9/11 increases in Pentagon spending, and, according to Chait, non-Pentagon expenditures for homeland defense represent only about one-seventh of the increase. Quite a lot of Bush’s non-Pentagon spending can fairly be characterized as corporate welfare. Chait cited more than $100 billion for pharmaceutical companies in the Medicare drug bill (not including its provision forbidding the federal government from using its substantial market power to negotiate lower drug prices) and $180 billion in agribusiness subsidies. Another aspect of the permanent Washington culture with which conservatives have made peace is the lobbying industry. Today the only GOP complaint about lobbyists is that too many of them are Democrats; Republicans are working actively to create a permanent corps of lobbyists loyal to the GOP. (The latter project is being overseen by Abramoff’s old friend and former associate Grover Norquist.)

The trouble with corporate welfare, from an individual businessman’s point of view, is that most of it fails to help business across the board. If my competitor gets a break in some piece of legislation, the odds are I have to hire a lobbyist to make sure that I get the same break, or some other break that neutralizes my competitor’s break. My lobby expenditures (and the attendant campaign and PAC contributions) therefore serve mainly to keep me in the same place I was in before the government started shoveling out special breaks. In the larger scheme of things, the baksheesh, even now, does not amount to enough money to worry the typical CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But one would think the nuisance and the degradation would be sufficient to prompt at least one of them to rebel. Where’s the CEO who’s willing to say, “I’m tired of paying these tawdry bribes, and I refuse to pay them anymore”? Right now CEOs will grumble this only to their “government affairs” (i.e., lobbying) officers, who are well-trained to nod and smile and answer that this is simply a necessary part of doing business. I’d like to see one of these supposed corporate titans take the message public:

I hereby resign from Jack Abramoff’s Choctaw Nation. From this day forth I will stop all corporate expenditures, official and unofficial, aimed at influencing Washington decision-makers. I will lobby no more forever.Who’s with me?

Maybe someday it will happen.