Jack Abramoff’s greed was so naked it’s mesmerizing. He charged $750 an hour, pocketed more than $20 million in kickbacks from Native American tribes, and then called them “monkeys.” Lawmakers who took the more than $4.4 million Abramoff gave since 1998, and their staffers, were greedy, too, though in a way that is more familiar: greedy for campaign contributions to get re-elected, greedy for fancy junkets, greedy for free meals.
But legislators rushing to make face-saving reforms need to understand that the problem on Capitol Hill isn’t just avarice run amok. Lobbyists thrive in Washington not just because members of Congress are greedy but because they, and the staffers who work for them, are lazy.
When I first started covering politics in Washington in the mid-1990s, my exacting bureau chief sent me on repeated missions to match campaign donations to legislative action. The information wasn’t online then, so I spent days at the Federal Election Commission and the office of the House Clerk looking up who had given what to whom. I looked at votes and fixes in bills and tried to match them with the money lobbyists had given. It was harder than I thought it would be. Lawmakers rarely reverse field and support something they once opposed because a lobbyist said hop to or wrote them a check.
To explain the system, I turned to an actual lobbyist who had had a successful career on the Hill. Fortunately he was a family friend and took pity on a clueless reporter. We met where you would expect us to: a dark, smoky club filled with other lobbyists. One hour in that bar was more productive than all my endless days poring over tiny print in windowless rooms.
The lobbyist’s first point was that the dance of influence is subtler than people think. If it works right, a member never has to say, even to himself, “I have to vote for this subsidy because lobbyist Jack has just put a check in my pocket.” That happens on occasion, but usually only when a piece of legislation comes up suddenly, or if a lobbyist goes off script. The more effective scenario, for everyone concerned, involves the lobbyist becoming friendly with members of the Congress member’s staff, who research issues and advise him or her what to do and how to vote.
When the member of Congress goes to staff for information, he wants it fast. A staffer can read all available material on the issue, think through the policy, and balance what’s right against the member’s political interests—or he can call his friend Smitty the lobbyist. Smitty knows all about this complicated stuff in the telecommunications bill. He was talking about it just the other day at the Wizards game, which was almost as fun as the Cointreau-and-capon party Smitty hosted at his spread in Great Falls over Labor Day.
Smitty has a solid, intellectually defensible answer to every question. He also knows how an issue is likely to play out politically for the member back in his home district. In a hectic day, Smitty makes a staffer’s day easier. That’s almost as appealing as the skybox and the free drinks. It’s easy to rationalize relying on lobbyists for this kind of help. In asking lobbyists to help them understand technical issues, staffers are doing the same thing journalists do every day—and in fact, journalists often call the same lobbyists for the same reason. They find someone who understands the issue, figuring that they’re smart enough to use the information that rings true and discard the spin.
At this point, I seem to remember my lobbyist friend gesturing with his cigar to emphasize his point. Smitty is not going to give his staffer friend bad political advice if he can help it, not because they are buddies and went golfing at Burning Tree together, but because he values his long-term relationship with the staffer and the member he works for. Smitty must provide an answer that helps his client but still protects the politician. Smitty wants to be called the next time and the time after that. In the back of his mind, he fantasizes about the member deciding he wants to introduce a free-standing piece of legislation that will help Smitty’s client. That’s not going to happen if Smitty hangs him out to dry.
This system keeps everyone in cognac and cigars—and in office—if they follow the unwritten rules. Abramoff didn’t follow them. He got too greedy and pushed too hard. He didn’t look out for the interests of the lawmakers he was buying. His requests were too explicit and obvious, and too closely linked in time to campaign contributions and excessive freebies. That’s why so many other lobbyists are mad at him—they had a nice thing going before he screwed it up. When other lobbyists are quoted in the paper denouncing Abramoff, they’re more likely to be angry at his lack of art than at his lack of ethics.
Hill staffers have another motivation for relying on lobbyists, which is more long-term venal than short-term greedy. Many don’t want to stick around and trade stories about budget resolutions at the House canteen for more than few years. They want to become lobbyists themselves and earn mid-six-figure salaries, instead of mid-five-figure ones. A couple of years on the Hill, and all the personal connections it brings, can translate into some nice offers on K Street down the road. Smitty isn’t just your good pal today. He’s your boss tomorrow.