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Jewish World Review
Jan. 9, 2006
/ 9 Teves, 5766
K Sera, Sera: Lobbyists will always be with us
There are probably a few Washington old-timers left who remember when K Street, Northwest, was lined with mansions but there can't be many. K Street is now lined with stolid, 130-foot-high office buildings Washington has a height limit filled with trade associations, law firms and lobbyists. I'm not sure who first used K Street as a shorthand term for Washington's lobbying community, but it might have been me, back in 1971, when I was promoting my first Almanac of American Politics and told the publisher the prime market was "K Street"; I don't remember having heard the term before, but I probably borrowed it from somebody else. Anyhow it has stuck as we are reminded by the news stories about the guilty pleas entered by lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who seems never to have had an office on K Street itself.
The Washington lobbying community goes back a long way. The First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging . . . the right of the people . . . to petition the Government for a redress of grievances": Lobbyists, like the clergy and the press, are a profession protected by the Constitution. You can bet there have been lobbyists working Washington since the days when Daniel Webster pocketed retainers from the Second Bank of the United States and Stephen Douglas sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act which led proximately to the Civil War as part of his project to anchor the transcontinental railroad in Chicago. When government makes decisions that affect private individuals and firms and industries, the representatives of those individuals and firms and industries are going to exercise their constitutional right to try to get the decisions to come out their way.
Government is especially likely to make such decisions in time of war. During World War I, when Woodrow Wilson's government nationalized the railroads and seized control of the shipping industry, a Chicago lawyer named Edward Burling moved down to Washington to become chief counsel of the Shipping Board. He made the observation that there was business to be had in litigating wartime claims and joined former Maryland congressman and judge Harry Covington to form the firm of Covington & Burling. Today C&B is one of many large Washington law firms, with distinguished lawyers who will surely tell you that they don't do any lobbying and they certainly don't do the kind of things Jack Abramoff did. But they do on occasion try to affect government decisions, whether by administrative agencies, administration officials or Congress. And why shouldn't they? It's a perfectly legitimate business.
K Street came to take on some resemblance to what it is today in the 1940s, when some of Franklin D. Roosevelt's talented young aides who, he insisted, must have a "passion for anonymity" left government and set up their own law firms and lobbying shops. They were all Democrats, of course, and usually liberal Democrats, but they were happy to advise business clients and willing to use their administration and Capitol Hill contacts. It helped their business that Democrats would hold the executive branch for 20 years and would have majorities in Congress for almost all the time from 1932 to 1994 (the House for 58 of those 62 years, the Senate for 52).
Among the most famous were Thomas G. "Tommy the Cork" Corcoran and Clark Clifford. Corcoran was the subject of a fine recent biography, "Peddling Influence," by David McKean, John Kerry's chief of staff. Brilliant and charming, he helped negotiate the government financing of Henry J. Kaiser's shipyards and steel factory in World War II. Clark Clifford, once Harry S. Truman's top aide, went into law practice in 1950 and helped negotiate the legislation minimizing DuPont's taxes on the sales of its controlling share of General Motors stock.
Corcoran and Clifford never built big firms. Others did. Like Arnold, Fortas & Porter, which dropped the middle name in 1965 after Abe Fortas was appointed to the Supreme Court by Lyndon B. Johnson (a man who knew how to deal with lobbyists). Or firms that specialized in things like defense contracts, communications law, drug regulation, securities litigation, antitrust, tax law.
Over the years there was more and more work to do. When I was in law school in the 1960s, no Washington law firm had 100 lawyers and most out-of-town firms with Washington offices had only one or two lawyers there. In today's Washington dozens of firms, many of them originally based in other cities, have 100 or more lawyers. One of the reasons that Dean Acheson said "I will not turn my back on Alger Hiss," after Hiss was convicted of perjury for lying about spying for the Soviets, was that Hiss's brother was one of Acheson's very few law partners at Covington & Burling. Today if a Washington lawyer's partner were convicted of something, he might be able to say truthfully that he had never met the person.
Washington lobbying in the 1940s and 1950s was a wild and wooly world where campaign contributions did not have to be reported and sackfuls of cash would be gratefully received. Thanks to a variety of reforms and to the fact that lobbyists like Mr. Abramoff do most of their work by e-mail K Street is a different and ultimately more transparent place today. It is also more bipartisan. After Republicans won majorities in Congress in 1994, Republican leaders, notably then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, launched what they called the K Street Project. The lobbying community, they argued, was made up mostly of Democrats. They steered their clients toward policies favored by Democrats, they charged, and they sent the bulk of their campaign money to Democrats which of course made good business sense when it seemed that Democrats would run Congress forever. The purpose of the K Street Project was to make the lobbying community first bipartisan and then predominantly Republican.
This can be defended on process grounds: Those who want to move government in a Republican direction are as entitled to try to move K Street as well as Congress in their direction. But it is not necessarily an attractive process. Corcoran, Rowe, Clifford, Arnold, Fortas and Porter attracted little national attention (although Harry Truman was hurt by disclosures that lobbyists gave administration officials a mink coat and a deep freeze). Republicans got more attention when they criticized the Electronics Industries Association for hiring Democratic former Rep. Dave McCurdy and got the EIA and Microsoft to hire Republicans.
And then there is Jack Abramoff. A close associate of Messrs. DeLay and Norquist and a longtime Republican activist, he seems to have been determined to make gigantic sums of money. Not content with the $1 million or so a year he could easily have made, he squeezed Indian tribes for tens of millions (Indian gambling laws have created a class of naive clients) and engaged in some very shady dealings in the gambling cruise ship business. There will always be such individuals: Abe Fortas, a lawyer of the highest intellectual caliber, was not content with a Supreme Court justice's salary and arranged for outside income from a former client, the disclosure of which led him to resign from the court. There is a fine and sometimes indistinct line between bribery, which requires a specific quid pro quo, and legal mutually beneficial conduct.
Mr. Abramoff's guilty pleas have both parties scampering to offer up lobbying reform; as fervent a Republican as he was, he made sure his clients gave money to Democrats too. His testimony could end the careers of some members of Congress and could threaten the Republicans' House majority. But there will be no end to lobbying: It is protected by the Constitution, and people will always seek to affect the decisions of a government that can have such great impact on them.
Over the last 35 years, I have watched as more and more office buildings have been going up in Washington. K Street, the prime market for my Almanac, has been spreading metastasizing, some would say and for every new 1,000 square feet some calculable number of my books will be sold. None of these buildings will be torn down, except to be replaced by new buildings with ever gaudier marble lobbies, even if Jack Abramoff resides for a time in public housing. The poor we may or may not always have with us. But we will always have K Street.
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Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future
America is divided into two camps, according to U.S. News and World Reports writer and Fox commentator Michael Barone. No, not Red and Blue, though one suspects Barone may taint the two groups in the hues of the 2000 presidential election. Barone's divided America is one part Hard, one part Soft. Hard America is steeled by the competition and accountability of the free market, while Soft America is the product of public school and government largesse. Inspired by the notion that America produces incompetent 18 year olds and remarkably competent 30 year olds, Barone embarks on a breezy 162-page commentary that will spark mostly huzzahs from the right and jeers from the left. Sales help fund JWR.
JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report. Comment by clicking here.
Michael Barone Archives
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