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The K Street Project Theory Lives On

I"m going to return to the theme of "It"s Not a Lobbying Scandal," probably by the end of the day, but for now, let"s just take a close look at what the Republican"s think "lobbying reform" means. This is from John Boehner"s document, "For a Majority that Matters," which has been read mainly for its humor value (reminiscent of Newt Gingrich"s famous seminar describing himself as "Definer of Civilization/Teacher of the Rules of Civilization ...Leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces") but has some substantive points as well:

The sordid spectacle of Jack Abramoff arises from two factors whose connection he personified, and I would suggest that any response that’s actually going to be effective will have to address those factors.

The first factor is the tremendous power of the federal government [boilerplate about how big government causes corruption]…

Second is that many of the lobbyists who enter our offices every day to represent their clients are, for all practical purposes, complete mysteries to us. Yet for the House to function, some degree of trust is necessary. Many lobbyists are of the highest integrity …But there’s every incentive for those with more questionable ethics to shortchange us and the House. And absent our personal, longstanding relationships, there is no way for us to tell the difference between the two.

We should think seriously about bringing greater transparency to the lobbying industry. Anyone – anyone – can call himself or herself a lobbyist, recruit clients, and make appearances on their behalf on the Hill. Clearer standards and greater transparency would promote greater institutional integrity and protect us against those in the industry who put their own short-term interests against the public trust.

This not only puts all the blame on the lobbyists, rather than the members who empower a lobbyist, it also describes the cosa nostra aspect of the K Street Project exactly. What the House Republicans did was to tell K Street, "Don"t send anyone up here who"s not a known guy." They told the firms and trade associations who to hire and then, in essence, made them full partners in the governmental process. Letting in Abramoff was a mistake, he wasn"t checked out properly.

Boehner"s complaint reflects all those basic assumptions of the K Street project. Instead of "their own short-term interests" lobbyists should prioritize "the public trust," defined as the interests of "us [the Republicans] and the House." But a lobbyist"s job to promote short-term private interests, not the public good. It"s the legislator"s job -- his public trust -- to weigh and balance those competing private interests in the public good. And how can a lobbyist "shortchange us and the House"? That statement only makes sense under the assumptions of the K Street Project. Let"s say it again: a lobbyist does not hold power. He can"t "shortchange" you as a legislator unless you delegate your power to him. And of course "anyone can call himsel or herself a lobbyist...and make appearances on the Hill." That"s democracy. The idea that House Republicans need even greater control over access, over who has the opportunity to make their own or their client"s case, is a formula for delegating even more power to a smaller, presumably more carefully selected, group.

It"s this conception of lobbying that"s the problem, not any particular practice. All the restrictions on trips and meals won"t matter if the Congressional majority continues to hold this peculiar view that their small cadre of selected lobbyists are essentially partners in "the public trust." I have a concept of lobbying that"s at once more benign and more distrustful. Sure, anyone can be a lobbyist. And every cause or interest -- including Food Stamps and early childhood education -- should have advocates who make the best case possible to legislators. Legislators should try to be open and accessible to all those viewpoints, but should at least initially be mistrustful of all of them, especially those representing private claims. There is plenty of room for abuse under that conception. No mortal legislator or staffer will ever be able to balance competing claims dispassionately or avoid the entanglements of friendship, subjective preferences, and fundraising. But that"s a very different matter from the K Street/Boehner concept of lobbying that puts those entanglements ("our long-term, personal relationships) at the very center of the public"s business.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 13, 2006 | Permalink


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I'm puzzled by which end of the telescope we should be looking through. It seems to me that the K Street Project is the dog; Congress is the tail.

Power is most effective when located at a single point. Political power is closely associated with whoever raises the most money. Norquist on the "outside" and Delay on the "inside" understood that by demanding that their corporate supporters centralize their funding, they could discipline the Congress.

Notwithstanding Mark's technically sound ethical argument, individual members of Congress cannot be expected to stand up to that sort of power.

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Jan 13, 2006 4:34:24 PM

There are several brands of grease on the slippery slope that would put our representatives in the hands of special interests. One is money for campaigning; another is administrative help in drafting and researching and politicking; another is flattery--which includes the wining and dining and jetting--and then only the most notorious of the greases is the plain old bribe. All but the notorious one enable representatives to compete more effectively against other representatives for influence in Congress and against would-be candidates to take their place in the next election. I think that's the primary allure of these greases. Campaign money for a better campaign. More administrative help to appear smarter and more productive and better connected. Dependency on these things is a natural result of failing to regulate competition--allowing a fight without rules. Or we have rules, like the airport screeners had rules before they realized box cutters were something to worry about, but the rules, naturally enough, have become out of date. Let's not look only for stop-gap rules. Maybe sticks and carrots closer to the source of the ethical breach would be more effective. Carrot-wise: What if we gave representatives money for more staff? Bigger offices to house more volunteers? Stick-wise: What if we expressly acknowledge administrative help as a tool of combat and place limits on person-hours?

Posted by: MT | Jan 14, 2006 12:31:29 PM

Thanks to my perusing your blog, specifically, "The Decembrist" (so, you know some Russian history), I have arrived at what I believe is a defensible inference. Both you and your readers would welcome news of in-your-face overt opposition to your "smirking chimp", my "dum'ya botch".

In plainer terms, I want to run for Representative for Pennsylvania's 10th Congressional District on a platform calling for the impeachment of President George Walker Bush.

Incidentally, I deliberately referred to your blog, to indicate that I visited your blog as an individual, and not as a spammer. Yes, that last is an illustion to a "pre-deconstruction" chick flick with a rating of two and a half hankies.

Ah, before you click on any of the enclosed hyperlinks, please read the entirely of my comment. For example, the three planks I nailed together in my platform out to get me elected. "impeach bush" is the first plank. The second is "impeach bush". The third is like the second, "impeach bush".

To continue, the first hyperlink below leads to the opening salvo of my campaign.


As for the second hyperlink, it leads to evidence that my candidacy is about more than opposition solely for the sake of opposition.


.he who is known as sefton

Posted by: A Alexander Stella | Jan 14, 2006 2:47:57 PM

To sum up, Boehner is lying - after 1994, any lobbyist who was a mystery wasn't allowed through the doors on Capital Hill. I think that you might want to rewrite your article to lead with that thesis.

Posted by: Barry | Jan 17, 2006 12:51:33 PM

Who exactly is supposed to register as a lobbyist? We tend to think of lobbyists as nefarious people with lots of money to burn who work for big corporations. Are these the only ones who have to register as lobbyists.

If you work for the Sierra Club or NAMI and you lobby on behalf of environmental legislation or mental health issues, are you a lobbyist then too? (I don't think that NAMI splurges for fancy trips, but they do meet with legislators and try to convince them of their position, and they are acting in a professional capacity, i.e., they're not just citizens.

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