Where K Street and Capitol Hill meet

The Washington Times

For those who are interested in political ideas and public policy-making, the role of K Street in the process is a source of considerable confusion. So perhaps the downfall of crooked Jack Abramoff will open a window through which the light at last shines on the whole multi-zillion-dollar lobbying industry. Unfortunately, I think it’s just as likely that the Abramoff scandal will obscure more than it reveals.

What kind of impression do you have of K Street? Do you think it’s where the real decisions in Washington get made? It is, after all, the intersection of money and politics: huge amounts of money from corporations, unions, big nonprofits, professional associations, wealthy individuals, etc.; and, of course, politics in the sense of its mother’s milk, campaign contributions.

All that money must buy something, no? Well, of course. We certainly have an idea of some of the more flamboyant things it buys, such as skyboxes at the MCI Center and golf trips to Scotland. And there is no doubt that when bills emerge from conference, they have scads of little provisions inexplicable apart from K Street lobbying: a tax credit for conversion to solar widgets here, accelerated depreciation for rudderless dingbats there.

But is this, then, how Washington really works? Are all those political arguments over what’s good for the country so much “superstructure,” in Marx’s term, on a base in which largely hidden financial interests are controlling? I don’t think so. Let’s take last year’s failed Bush administration initiative on Social Security, for example. Was this a K Street program? Now, there are those who will say that Republicans wanted private accounts to steer big commissions to their Wall Street pals and also that the very rich favor private accounts as a way to roll back the New Deal welfare state.

But, pardon me, this really is the view from the fringe. After all, Democrats have wealthy Wall Street contributors, too. But even if they didn’t, did Democrats unite to scuttle Bush administration plans out of some K Street effect on them? Did the unions make them oppose private accounts, or just provide them with support and ammo.

No, when you tell the story of the failure of Social Security reform in 2005, you will look at these elements first, not K Street: the Bush economists’ conviction that private pension plans offer better returns; Mr. Bush’s 2004 re-election stumping on reform and his conclusion that the country was more enthusiastic about the idea than it really was; and the fact that some prominent moderate Democrats (the late Pat Moynihan, the Democratic Leadership Council) once expressed support for reform that included private accounts. On the negative side: the complexity of the system’s finances and the mounting awareness that private accounts would have little effect on the solvency issues cited as the urgent reason to take action; mainstream Democratic conviction that private accounts would weaken the public commitment to the system; and, ultimately, unanimous Democratic political calculation that cooperating in a Bush political victory would not be in their interests.

Now, I have no doubt that lunch was eaten and that campaign coffers were filled, that conference calls from K Street to Wall Street or union headquarters were had and that e-mails action alerts flew through cyberspace. And I have no doubt that press releases taking credit or deflecting blame went out. It is an axiom of Washington, indeed K Street, that whenever something happens, someone will take credit in the hope of reaping a benefit, and that those on the losing side will explain how much worse things would have been without their heroic efforts.

And there is always someone to take you to lunch. One thing people need to understand about the PR industry is that it grades itself first on its ability to take people to lunch – and only as bonus on whether minds were changed as a result of the lunchtime conversation.

So is K Street dispositive? It is certainly in K Street’s interest to describe itself in those terms, but in most public-policy deliberations – again, last-minute insertions into the bill in the dead of night excepted – the real action is elsewhere. Politicians tend to be predictable, and the best predictors tend to be party and ideology.

Indeed, when they do something off the wall, such as Ohio Rep. Bob Ney’s comments on offshore gambling in Florida, you probably ought to heighten your scrutiny.

But you need to be careful also. It was in Jack Abramoff’s interest all along to hype his influence with legislators to the clients he was ripping off, to make himself appear as the mover and shaker par excellence in Washington. It has more recently been in his interest to hype to federal prosecutors his ability to get lawmakers to do his bidding in exchange for favors.

Maybe there was bribery. Certainly the stench is atrocious. Maybe, on the other hand, the ultimate crime of a legally embattled, crooked lobbyist is to lie under oath about quid-pro-quos in pursuit of a reduced sentence.