In novels, films, or real life, there's really only one Washington story: Newcomer comes to town, full of idealism and ready to change the country, but soon encounters the permanent government that defines what you can't do and whom you have to deal with if you want to try. The permanent government might be octogenarian committee chairs, ruthless staffers, or -- more recently, as the power of the committee chairs has waned -- the lobbyists.
It's the story of the Carter administration, the Clinton administration, and almost every new congressional majority. Even Republican right wingers claim it's their story that "we came to change Washington, but Washington changed us." (That one's not true, but we'll get to that.)
The Democrats elected this November have a rare opportunity, if they can appreciate it, to rewrite this story. They have the opportunity to put the lobbyists back in their proper place: as claimants on government, with a right to be heard, but no longer embedded in government or setting its limits.
Every newly elected Democrat inevitably will begin the next Congress with meetings and fund-raisers with those who are paid well to represent the companies and institutions in his or her district or committee's jurisdiction. Those lobbyists will quietly make sure that it's known how much money they put into the new legislator's campaign. Indeed, as the Democratic takeover looked more and more likely, every political action committee and lobbying firm in Washington scrambled to make sure that at least half its contributions went to the Democrats. The late rush of money to the winners helped bury the Republicans in their last days.
But even a cynical politician should know that late money that comes in when you already look like a winner needs to be discounted. It's the early money that makes your candidacy possible that really counts. And for most of the new Democrats, that money came from other sources, mostly from individuals passionate about changing the direction of the country.
There are lots of good-government reasons for Democrats to ward off the lobbyists. And there are good political reasons as well: "Corruption" turned out to be a more decisive issue than most mainstream Democratic strategists had expected, and a dramatic move to change the way the House of Representatives in particular does business -- as Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi promised long ago -- will help cement the voting public's sense that they voted for change and got it. Reducing the influence of corporate money -- not through restrictive campaign finance laws such as McCain-Feingold, but by using matching funds and tax credits to enhance the value of small contributions -- will make it easier for candidates to run without depending on the usual suspects.
There is an even more pragmatic reason to keep the lobbyists at bay: It gives Democrats freedom of action. The last Democratic majority in the House was constrained by the deal engineered by former Democratic Majority Whip Tony Coelho (recounted in Brooks Jackson's book Honest Graft), in which the party sold out to K Street in exchange for what it thought would be perpetual control of the House. The deal limited Democrats' range of action -- and for nothing, since they lost the House three elections later anyway.
If Democrats are able to free themselves from the lobbyists, they will have Republicans to thank for it. First, because Republicans showed that it could be done. Far from letting Washington change them, the Republicans stood up to the corporate lobbyists and said, play the game our way, or don't play at all. The essence of the K Street Project, besides demanding that lobbyists hire and contribute only to Republicans, was its insistence that the lobbyists subsume their own clients' interests to those of the Republican Party. The lobbyists didn't corrupt the party; the party brought them into its own corruption.
From which the Democrats can learn two lessons. First, it showed that a party in power could exercise that power and bring lobbyists to heel. That's especially true if the party has other sources of financing, from people actually inspired by the party's agenda, as the Republicans did and Democrats now do as well. Second, it means that the new majority owes almost nothing to K Street, and if Democrats want the freedom to develop a broad and popular agenda to allay the economic anxieties of most Americans, they should keep it that way.
The Democrats should not replicate the K Street Project, but they have the opportunity to reverse it. In this reverse K Street Project, lobbyists have the right to be heard but no special claim, and the Democratic leadership sets the agenda, confident that if lobbyists don't like it, there are other ways to raise money and promote the party's policies.
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