The Growth of Lobbying in Washington
by Sasha Aslanian
Charlie Peters came to Washington D.C. with the Kennedy campaign in 1961. For 32 years he was founder and editor of The Washington Monthly, where he still writes a political column. American RadioWorks asked Peters to share his observations about the D.C. lobbying scene in the 40-plus years he's been a close observer. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Two Great Clues: Rising Restaurant Prices and a Building Boom
Charlie Peters: The first tip we had of what was going on [with the growth of lobbying in the 1970s] was this explosion of building on the K Street corridor. ... All up and down Connecticut Avenue, all along K Street and up and down 18th, 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd streets were suddenly this explosion of these buildings.
So, we looked into who was in them. And we sent Nicholas Lemann, one of our young editors who now writes for The New Yorker and is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, but then he was just 22. And he went out to look at what was in these buildings and we found out that trade associations and lawyers were two-thirds of the tenants.
So we knew we had a big clue as to what was going on and then the third clue was restaurant prices. This struck at me personally because I had been able afford. ... Washington was on the civil service scale back then. Whatever the government was paid ruled the economy of the town. So restaurant prices were geared to that and they would go up modestly each time there was a raise in government pay, but it was only modest because the pay raises were usually modest. So everything, even the best restaurants, you could afford once a week and around about the mid-to-late '70s, I began to notice, "Boy, I can't afford it any longer." I have to hope some nice friend takes me out because I couldn't afford it anymore and it didn't take long to realize that it was no longer geared to the civil service, it was geared to these lobbyists with their credit cards, so these restaurant prices exploded.
The Golden Turnstile: Lucrative Lobbying Jobs Await Hill Politicians and Staff
Peters: When I came here [in the early 1960s], I had many young friends on Capitol Hill who ... worked on the staff of congressmen and senators, ... but they were mostly very idealistic people and what they were up to all the time was they were trying to get legislation changed for the good. They were trying a phrase in the bill here or there that would make it better. Or even if they were conservative, it was ideologically driven and they were not sold out.
Now, suddenly, in the '80s, as the culture of greed began to take hold in the whole country and you began to get this great growth in executive salaries and all those things that manifested that greed, the congressional staff members began to think not about doing good, but about currying favor with lobbyists who could give them $300,000 a year jobs so that they could eat lunch every day in those fancy restaurants and wear those Italian suits and all that went with it. And drive the Mercedes. All of those things, those guys began to want and so they began to behave in a way that was designed to please lobbyists and that has caused terrible corruption on Capitol Hill.
It's not a corruption where people are bribed directly. They are bribed indirectly by the possibility of future lucrative employment. So, that's the sad story. Those are the great ingredients I think in the sad story of the growth of Washington to its present position of dominance.
"It's Rarely Put that Vulgarly" or How Does Lobbying Actually Work?
Peters: Every congressman has a nightmare of losing by one vote and then "what am I going to do?" Well, a lobbyist that subtly gets across that, "If such misfortune should ever strike you, Senator, you can count on me to take care of you," and that is one of their main weapons. It is seldom anymore direct cash payments. Things like Duke Cunningham [convicted of bribery.] They're unusual. They are not representative. The usual thing is the lure of campaign contribution or of future employment.
Jill Barshay: Let's talk about campaign contributions. Is it spoken of so directly? Let's say I'm a telephone company and I want the legislation to be written a certain way. Do I say, "If you write the legislation the way I'm asking you to, then I will give you $10,000 from my PAC and we'll aggregate from our employees $30,000 more"?
Peters: It's very rare that it's put that vulgarly. Most high-class lobbyists, the veteran king of Washington lobbyists for many years, Tommy Boggs, I am sure he never ever talked that way. You never embarrass someone by being blatant about what's going on. These are all indirect hints, pledges in different conversations. "We can get help to you. We'll get help to you, just tell us who your treasurer is. We want to help. We believe in what you're doing, Senator. You're doing a great job and we believe." It's never, "You vote our way, buster, or you won't get any money." It's sometimes that way, but rarely.
A Lack of Civility in Washington Linked to Constant Need to Fundraise
Peters: The reasons they stopped talking to each other on the Hill are many and complex, partly because they have to raise money constantly. This is another way that money in politics is so horrible because they have to go home on the weekends to raise money. They no longer spend weekends here where they have social contact with people of the other parties. There's nothing like sitting at dinner next to someone from the opposite party whose daughter has had polio too. Or you find you have some common problems and you have a common humanity and you realize, "This guy is no monster." As long as they're not talking to each other, they can sit around and think of each other as monsters, which is what the Democrats and Republicans have gotten to doing.
See, back in the old days, campaigns cost hardly anything. For instance, to get elected on the West Virginia Legislature cost me a total of $400 for the primary and the general election. Now, even that can cost $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 just in the state legislature. In the federal Congress, there are immense sums involved now where it used to be for instance in a congressional district, the guy who went out and did lots of door-to-door campaigning and really dedicated himself to it, he could win. You didn't have to have the money. Then the power of television. I think the 30-second campaign commercial is one of the great tragedies of modern times because that's where the big money goes and it has just sopped up money.
Then you have the development of the campaign consultant. These guys who have grown quite famous and they were interviewed on television with great respect. There's one-on-one liberal radio show and the host treats him with great deference and the guy made his money by taking 15 percent on the commission of that advertising all those years and he made his money by constantly whispering in his client's ear, "You need more. If we're going to carry North Dakota, we've got to plug into the Fargo TV station and we need more time. We've got to buy more time." Each one of the "more times" he conned his candidate into buying, he got 15 percent.
Those guys, they are not all bad. Like that guy I'm talking about is very bright. There's no question that he was constantly subject to that temptation. So it makes no difference how pure his heart was to begin with. The fact that his income and his Georgetown house and all that was dependant on conning these guys into spending an immense amount of money. If you conned your candidate into spending an immense amount of money on television, the other consultant on the other side has to con his guy even though maybe he has a stroke of conscience, although that's rare.
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