Lost Causes

Back in his day, Tom Downey was the proverbial good liberal congressman. Elected to the House in 1974 as the youngest representative in U.S. history, Downey was one of the Watergate Babies--that cohort of reform-minded idealists swept into Congress on a wave of anti-Nixon public disgust. During the 1980s, Downey fought against cuts in school lunches, college loans, Medicaid, and other domestic-spending programs sacrificed on the altar of Reaganism. He earned renown as a vigorous--if unsuccessful--opponent of Reagan's B-1 bomber program, even though his Long Island district was home to the program's single-largest contractor. (Downey also brawled, literally, with then-Congressman "B-1 Bob" Dornan, the program's greatest proponent, on the House floor.) Like Al Gore, with whom he became close during Gore's House career, Downey was a strong environmentalist. And thanks to both his own energy and the support of traditional Democratic constituencies, such as labor and teachers' unions, Downey held on to his overwhelmingly Republican district even through the Reagan landslide of 1984. By the 1990s, Downey was in line for chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, a rising star with senatorial and even presidential ambitions. "I don't discount that as a possibility," Downey once explained to a New York Times reporter. "My district is as much a microcosm of the United States as I can find."

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But in 1992, in a harbinger of the Republican revolution two years down the road, Downey was knocked off by Rick Lazio, another up-and-comer with higher ambitions. So Downey--fresh from the Hill, rich with contacts and favors, and possessing the political acumen of a man who has spent a quarter-century in Congress--did what has since become the obvious thing: He teamed up with a Republican (former Congressman Rod Chandler), found office space in downtown D.C., and started a lobbying firm.

Over the next few years, Downey Chandler accumulated a client roster impressive even by Beltway standards, including Time Warner, DuPont, Fannie Mae, MasterCard International, the National Cable Television Association, two large insurance companies, and four airlines. When South African President Thabo Mbeki considered enacting "compulsory licensing" for AIDS drugs--allowing the South African government to sell its citizens cheap, generic versions of high-priced, patented medications--Downey lobbied the Clinton administration on behalf of Merck & Company (which manufactures Crixivan, a popular AIDS medication) to pressure Mbeki to back down. When the Clinton administration charged Fuji Photo Film with barring Eastman Kodak from the Japanese market, Downey lobbied Congress and the U.S. trade representative against anti-Fuji sanctions. And when Microsoft came under siege from the U.S. Department of Justice, Downey, according to the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), had a few talks with his old friend Al. In 1998, according to the CPI, Downey Chandler billed $2.38 million from more than 40 clients. The same year, Downey--heralded by Time in 1987 as one of "America's Stars of Tomorrow" (along with Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Senator Al Gore of Tennessee)--had made an altogether different kind of list: Washingtonian magazine's ranking of the top 50 lobbyists in Washington.

The Other Bipartisanship

But while it's tempting to think of Downey's story as a sort of fable--When Good Democrats Go Bad--his is the normal path for former Democratic congressmen, their top aides, committee staffers, and executive branch officials. Indeed, the firm described in the Washingtonian as "Washington's wealthiest, largest, and most powerful private lobbying firm" was not a white-shoe coterie of greedy Republican profiteers, but Cassidy & Associates--founded by Gerald Cassidy, a former general counsel for George McGovern's quintessentially do-gooding Committee on Hunger. Democrats also make up just over half the total number of former members of Congress whom the Center for Responsive Politics identifies as registered lobbyists. Many more work unregistered, under the requirement that they not directly contact members of Congress with regard to legislation. "For every Haley Barbour," says the CPI's Peter Eisner, "there's a Tony Coelho."

One reason is that former politicians and their aides are more valuable to the lobbying process than ever. "Lobbyists used to be generalists," says William V. Corr, a former top aide to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. "Now it's much more direct, much more personal. Lobbyists are targeted on individual members." That means that of the thousands of lobbyists in Washington, the most powerful are those who can solicit access and aid not as supplicants or even donors, but as friends or former colleagues. Thus, all successful firms, whether led by Republicans or Democrats, are bipartisan. Just as Downey partnered with Chandler (and later Raymond McGrath, a former Republican congressman from New York), ex-rep Vic Fazio (a Democrat) joined up with ex-rep Vin Weber (a Republican) at Clark & Weinstock, former Gore aide Jack Quinn linked up with former Dick Armey aide Ed Gillespie to start Quinn Gillespie, and Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand hired Howard Baker to balance out the more liberal George Mitchell and Ann Richards.

Of course, such firms--bipartisan, hugely profitable, and loaded with recently former public officials--have been dominating K Street since at least the late 1980s; the liberal Democrat-turned-power-lawyer is a familiar figure, dating back to one-time New Dealer and superlawyer Tommy "The Cork" Corcoran more than half a century ago. What is less obvious is that as more and more Democrats (and nominal liberals) occupy the top echelons of lobbying, their work as a whole has helped tilt politics inexorably to the right. Indeed, the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 shifted power to a whole generation of GOP lobbyists who had been substantially frozen out of the action during the years of Democratic ascendance. In an effort dubbed--without irony--"Project Relief," House Whip Tom DeLay invited corporate lobbyists to literally rewrite the laws of the land; consumer protections, environmental laws, and the regulatory jurisdiction of federal agencies were targeted for rollback. Who needed Democratic lobbyists? (For that matter, who needed independent Republican lobbyists? The Republican leadership required little prodding.) And yet, in the next few years--at the height of the short-lived Gingrich revolution--Democratic lobbyists helped big corporations and their conservative allies achieve some of their signature victories.

Blowing Smoke

There is perhaps no single industry in the United States so thoroughly despised by such a large proportion of the public as Big Tobacco--not Big Oil, not HMOs, not the baby-seal-clubbing industry. So when hard evidence finally emerged of the industry's decades of gross malfeasance during the mid-1990s, it seemed that not even the vaunted lobbying power of the tobacco manufacturers could forestall devastating lawsuits and tough government regulation. Though Republicans have long displayed a remarkable affinity for affixing their lips to the backsides of tobacco companies, a settlement was clearly going to require the intervention of someone with impeccable public-service credentials and the utmost political credibility.

The tobacco companies soon found their man: George Mitchell, Democrat, former Senate majority leader, broker of Irish peace, and newly acquired rainmaker for Verner Liipfert, the estimable Washington-based lobbying-cum-law firm. "His job was calling people like me before the negotiations to try to convince me I ought to be sitting down with the tobacco companies," says Matthew Myers, current president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "The first day of negotiations, he gave a set of introductory remarks about the opportunity the deal offered. And then he left."

Eventually, the tobacco companies, the public health industry, and the various state attorneys general brokered a major deal. And though expensive at $368 billion over 25 years, the settlement reached in 1997 sent tobacco stocks into rebound since it added a much-needed measure of predictability to the companies' fate. All that remained was to sell the package to Congress, whose approval was needed to limit the industry's future liability. It was at this point that the tobacco companies loaded their roster of lobbyists with Democrats--not just onetime executive staffers like Peter Knight (a former Gore aide) and guns-for-hire like Carter Eskew (Gore's image consultant), but also the eminently credible Ann Richards, former governor of Texas.

Such Democratic lobbyists were far more valuable than their Republican counterparts. After all, the tobacco companies already had some of Congress's most powerful Republicans--Trent Lott, Tom DeLay, and Mitch McConnell--in their pocket; what they really needed was a few swing Democrats to convince Congress (and the public) of the fundamental good faith of the tobacco companies in coming to a settlement. Richards, in particular, was crucial to such an effort. As Myers points out, "She had access to a range of progressive Democrats with whom the tobacco industry did not have much credibility."

Partly as a result of her efforts, the 1997 deal came out of tobacco foe John McCain's committee with zero Democratic opposition and strong provisions for tobacco regulation by the FDA. Then the tobacco companies--having earned a few publicity points by coming to the table--decided to scuttle the bill. The McCain legislation was, says one observer, "lobbied to oblivion." And when a new series of settlements emerged in 1998, the total cost to the companies had dropped from $368 billion to $246 billion. More importantly, most of the onerous provisions, such as the marketing restrictions and FDA regulation, had been dropped.

In retrospect, the outcome was unsurprising. The five largest tobacco companies, after all, spent a whopping $30 million on lobbying in 1997. But though Mitchell and Richards's firm Verner Liipfert got $5 million, it's revealing that--in the grand scheme of tobacco lobbying--the two Democrats hardly got their hands dirty. Mitchell lent credibility to the settlement and helped bring everyone to the table; Richards talked the deal up to her former colleagues without becoming overly involved in the nuts and bolts. "When you get high enough, like Ann Richards, us poor schmucks don't even see it," says one liberal activist. "They just get one or two meetings set up with a committee chair or a majority leader. Some of these folks don't even learn the details; it's not their job." And that's the point. Liberal lobbyists often serve a critical function as enablers--as fulcrums--for corporate-backed conservative interests.

The tobacco fight was, at least, a very public one. More typical is the lobbying performed to further a narrow industry goal, far from public view. In 1995 the securities industry and its venture capitalist clients were determined to make it harder for investors to sue in cases of corporate fraud. They found plenty of support among Republicans. "Tort reform" as a whole was one of the 10 planks of the GOP's 1994 Contract with America, and securities reform in particular was a pet project of conservative congressmen Christopher Cox and Billy Tauzin. Generally, Republican tort reformers speak endlessly of frivolous lawsuits while designing legislation to throw up structural impediments to all lawsuits against corporations--frivolous or meritorious. The 1995 Private Securities Litigation Reform Act was no different; among other provisions, it sought to prevent companies (along with their underwriters and accountants) from being held legally responsible for inflating the predictions they made in corporate reports unless they knew the information to be fraudulent.

Many Democrats thus had principled objections. "This is going to give corporations license to lie to investors," Joseph Biden told his Senate colleagues in December 1995. "In this bill, Grandma loses. This is absolutely outrageous." Equally outrageous, perhaps, was the fact the lobbyist chiefly responsible for organizing opposition to the bill was Mark Gitenstein, a former chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee and former top aide to Biden himself. Gitenstein, by then a lawyer with the Washington office of Mayer, Brown & Platt, represented the Coalition to Eliminate Abusive Securities Suits--a 430-company organization that included, as a New York Times financial columnist put it, "some fine outfits, ultimately exonerated in court, and at least as many who perhaps weren't sued enough."

Gitenstein wasn't the only one. As the Times reported that year, several Democratic Senate aides working on the bill had ties to the securities industry. Courtney Ward, then a minority staffer on the Senate Banking Committee, had already accepted a job with J.P. Morgan as he worked to draft the Senate version of the bill. His predecessor, Martha Cochran, was already on the payroll at Arnold & Porter, one of D.C.'s top lobbying-law outfits. In fairness, they had a little Democratic help at the top: Christopher Dodd, a senator from insurance company-rich Connecticut and former head of the Securities Subcommittee, was one of the main sponsors and movers of the bill. So were the Big Six accounting firms and many high-tech companies, an industry over which even liberal Democrats have been known to slaver uncontrollably.

But the most interesting twist was how the Democratic proponents of the legislation--on and off the Hill--adopted the language and reasoning of conservative Republicans. Securities liability reform, like tort reform generally, is an issue whose progress depends heavily on a) how much money business interests can pour into it (answer: a ton) in order to b) frame the debate as one of greedy lawyers filing nuisance lawsuits rather than unscrupulous companies committing fraud against unwitting investors. By providing bipartisan cover, the Democratic lobbyists aided congressional Republicans in defining it as the former. In other words, a swarm of nominal liberals working their friends and colleagues accomplished what dozens of Wall Street Journal editorials could not: They shifted the political spectrum rightward, redefining classic special-interest corruption as a kind of sensible, business-friendly, moderate liberalism.

The Road to K Street

These are only two of dozens of similar examples, but they point to a much broader problem. The lobbying industry doesn't just breed cynicism and bad government. It creates a systematic, partisan imbalance--against liberal and progressive interests represented by voters, and in favor of traditional conservative and corporate interests represented by money. Nor is this imbalance the occasional product of a few high-profile turncoats. It is, on the contrary, endemic to the system. The very career chain--work on the Hill, move to a lobbying firm--pulls congressional Democrats to the right.

The proximate reason is--all together now--money. While liberal organizations do hire former public officials as presidents and executive directors, they can never outpay private lobbying firms backed by industry. Whereas the former pay scarcely better than government service, lobbying and law firms can catapult a middle-aged congressional aide from a high five-figure salary to a mid-six-figure one. For top rainmakers--former governors, senators, and congressional leaders--a move into lobbying can mean compensation packages well into the millions, often for jobs that require little more than a few phone calls a day to a few well-placed friends and former colleagues.

And while it is quite common for former Democrats like Downey to go work for corporate clients like Merck and DuPont, it is almost unheard of for former Republicans or their aides to move to a lobbying firm and rent their services to, say, the AFL-CIO. As a result, one almost always finds Democrats selling cross-partisan access to traditional Republican constituencies, while one rarely finds the reverse. And though many lobbying firms would be perfectly willing to represent liberal, anticorporate organizations, lobbying is a game of influence-for-hire--and corporations pursuing narrow, private goods (like a tax break or a change in patent law) can almost always hire more influence than public-interest and liberal groups defending broad, public goods (like purging the tax code of single-corporation dodges that screw ordinary citizens).

Still, a spectacle like George Mitchell and Ann Richards shilling for Big Tobacco is relatively rare. More often, the choices are seemingly nonideological. For instance, a lot of Democratic corporate lobbyists will contend that a great many issues involve relatively neutral, technical regulatory problems that require expert solutions. Lobbying the FDA to speed approval of an arthritis drug doesn't necessarily hurt ordinary citizens; indeed, it may even help quite a few. But this is a very slippery slope. The same lobbyist may be part of a drug industry crusade to reduce FDA oversight of the drug approval process generally. Even the association of a onetime liberal legislator with an industry in the thick of other battles--such as price-gouging--may help to create a halo effect for an industry that is otherwise at odds with public opinion.

Indeed, most of the influence game is similarly insidious, chronic, and obscure. And this is precisely the problem. Pervasive manipulation of the political system contributes to the slow, inevitable accretion of business-conservative advantage. In tandem with the current campaign finance system, the K Street connection whittles away government's ability to act as an equalizer in disputes between public interests, which are underfunded and diffuse, and private corporate interests, which are powerful and narrow. "I used to say that we could level the power to a degree because members of Congress--particularly on the left--felt that they had to listen to what the consumer and citizens' groups had to say. Increasingly, it is more and more difficult for us to get heard," says Andrew Schwartzman, a longtime liberal activist and current head of the Media Access Project, a public-interest law firm. "Over time, the degree to which big money games the system and has co-opted the process increases tremendously."

Ultimately, such an increase is fatal to the substance of liberalism as well as to open processes that lead to good government policies. A balance between corporate and public interests is essential to the health of a democratic, capitalist society; moreover, it is this balance that, broadly speaking, liberals place at the center of their political tradition and conservatives do not. The more liberals themselves help to undermine it, the less room there will be for liberalism of any kind. ยค