Ray Suarez: From American Public Media, this is "Imperial Washington," an American RadioWorks documentary. I'm Ray Suarez.
Members of Congress face temptations, like special interest groups inviting them on posh trips.
Voters are demanding reform. In the next hour, we'll look at how the royal treatment some lawmakers enjoy makes it tough to clean up government
And we'll see what happens when a newcomer tries to play the lobbying game.
In the coming hour, "Imperial Washington" from American RadioWorks. First, this news update.
Suarez: You're listening to "Imperial Washington," an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Ray Suarez.
In November 2006, the voters spoke. They put Democrats back in charge of Capitol Hill after 12 years of Republican rule. One of voters' biggest gripes: Washington had gotten too high and mighty. Pollsters said voters were sick of scandals. They'd had it with crooked lobbyists like Jack Abramoff. He's the Republican operator who bribed public officials and ripped off Indian tribes. Then, there were the Republican congressmen convicted of corruption: Duke Cunningham and Robert Ney.
There's genuine hope for reform with the new Congress. But how much will Capitol Hill really change? How much can it change?
In the next hour, we'll look at how power and money combine to make Washington an Imperial City, where the corridors of power are dominated by insiders intimate with palace rules. First, senior economics correspondent Chris Farrell takes us on a trip to the Imperial City.
Chris Farrell: So, here we are here at Washington's Reagan Airport and members of Congress can just drive here and they can park their cars for free, grab their bags and get on an airplane. It's nice, convenient and cheap.
It must be nice not to lose your car in the airport ramp like I often do. Members of Congress do come and go a lot, so maybe they need this convenience. Still, it's a symbol of the red-carpet treatment members of Congress enjoy in Washington. I came here to learn whether an accumulation of privileges insulates lawmakers from the people they serve, people like you and me. I also wanted to know if a perk-driven lifestyle made it easier over time to let your ethics slip and succumb to the power of comfort and money.
On my cab ride into town, I glimpsed the Capitol Dome. Corny as it sounds, every time I see it, I still feel like Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
Mr. Smith learned that Capitol Hill is like a small city all its own in Washington D.C., sort of like America's Vatican. Senators and representatives and their staff have their own subway to get around the hill. Lawmakers never have to leave their office complex to get a haircut or go to the bank or visit their kids in day care. Members even have their own elevators.
The Speaker's Lobby is a majestic den outside the chamber of the House. Now picture those photos you've seen of rooms at the French palace of Versailles with fancy chandeliers and lots of gold.
I pose next to a sign that says, "Members Only," and my producer snaps a picture for our Web site. Oops. A guard rushes over, saying no pictures allowed.
We put away the camera and look at the portraits on the wall. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stares down at me. He reminds me of the last time a political party swept into power on a promise to clean up Washington: the Republican Revolution of 1994. The revolt was led by Gingrich and former Congressman Dick Armey. I got to wondering what he thought about congressional perks nowadays, so I dialed him up at his ranch in Texas.
Armey wanted to show he was careful with his taxpayer money, and his own.
Armey didn't want to waste money on a D.C. apartment. He had four kids to get through college. I can relate. He was also trying to resist the D.C. imperial culture.
Some members of Congress seem down to earth enough, like Jeff Flake. He's a Republican representative from Arizona. When I meet him at his Capitol Hill office, he apologizes for not wearing a suit, for a radio interview. Flake has made a name for himself challenging the red-carpet privileges Congress has amassed over the years.
I asked Flake about the automatic pay raises Congress gives itself. Most Americans have watched their wages stagnate over the past several years, but not members of Congress. This year's raise pushed their salary to $168,500.
In the waning days of last year, Congress did make its raise contingent on hiking the minimum wage in February, but there's more than automatic pay raises. Members also enjoy a good health care plan and a gold-plated pension. Members and their staff have their own health club and members can smoke in their fancy speaker's lounge even after D.C.'s new smoking ordinance goes into effect.
Pete Sepp is with the National Taxpayer's Union, a conservative watchdog group that tracks government spending.
Martin Frost doesn't buy the argument that members of Congress are out of touch. Frost is a Democrat from Texas who served in the House of Representatives for 26 years. Now he's a lawyer and lobbyist.
Still, all this makes me wonder if members of Congress aren't susceptible to what business historian Richard Tedlow calls "the derangement of power." He used it to describe very successful corporate chieftains. Like CEOs, members of Congress are surrounded by people who make sure they don't have to deal with many of the minor annoyances of life, like smoking outside or standing in line for stamps. Members can send mail for free.
Frank Pallone is a House Democrat from New Jersey. He points out that Congress usually promises to abide by the spirit of the law even if it's exempt from the letter of the law. But Pallone says some exceptions are still egregious.
Pallone is trying to close that loophole. He also wants to change congressional pension rules. Other public servants who violate the public trust on the job lose their pensions. Soldiers do. The same goes for cops in most states. But, members of Congress don't.
Remember Randy "Duke" Cunningham? He was convicted of evading taxes and conspiring to take over $2 million in bribes, including a Rolls-Royce and a yacht. But, Cunningham will still get his congressional pension. The National Taxpayers Union estimates he'll get some $36,000 a year from his time on the Hill plus any cost of living increases. Pallone says that's not right.
So Congress has these legal perks that are pretty easy to see and are perfectly legal, but there's another kind of royal treatment we haven't talked about yet. What about the stuff members get from lobbyists? [Willard Hotel lobby ambiance] Lobbying is one of the largest industries in D.C., with lots of deals negotiated over expensive steak dinners and in plush hotel suites and the most effective lobbyists are former members of Congress and former Capitol Hill staffers. Hardly anyone with a position of power in Washington ever leaves. Instead, they walk through a golden revolving door, taking advantage of their contacts to coin money in the Imperial City.
The historic Willard Hotel is only two blocks from the White House. This is where the practice of lobbying was born back in the 1860s. As the story goes, President Grant's wife didn't like him drinking at home, so he would slip out of the White House and imbibe spirits at the Willard. Grant's drinking habit was common knowledge and anyone wishing to get his attention would hang out in the lobby. Hence, the word "lobbyists."
[Quieter spot in lobby]
The Willard Hotel is still a favorite watering hole for Washington's movers and shakers. So I thought it would be fitting to meet James Thurber here to talk about the Washington favor factory. Thurber is a political scientist who runs American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. He says Washington has made progress. In the old days, lobbyists actually carried black bags stuffed with money to the Willard and put members of Congress on retainer.
Nowadays there are also limits on how much wining and dining lawmakers and their staffers can accept and strict guidelines for reporting it. Still, it seems in Washington, there are always loopholes. Take the ban on gifts over $50.
Lobbyists want access because Congress writes the laws and politicians need what lobbyists have in abundance: money to get reelected; lots of money. Imagine, the average cost of winning a Senate seat in 2006 was almost $8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That means a senator needs to raise some $3,500 a day for six years just to spend the average amount on an election.
Members have to raise that money without selling their influence, or looking like they are. Thurber used to teach ethics classes to new members of Congress.
Keith Ellison is a brand new member of Congress, a Democrat from Minnesota. He says when new members began arriving in Washington this time, members from both sides of the aisle crowded into the ethics classes.
Surely most members of Congress will pay attention to voter discontent with Congressional ethics. That's what Dick Armey thinks. The former Republican majority leader believes the 2006 election was just the shock therapy Washington needed
Still, hurrying past those free parking spots at Reagan-National Airport on my way back home, I couldn't help but wonder. What if members of Congress didn't get those good pensions or that premium health care plan? Would things be different for the rest of us? Would a less imperial Washington care more about the half of the American workforce with no pension? Would a less privileged Congress care that 16 percent of Americans, many of them children, go without health insurance? I think they might. I really do.
Suarez: I'm Ray Suarez, you're listening to "Imperial Washington," a documentary from American RadioWorks. Later in the program, we'll explore the last great frontier of congressional perks: travel that's funded by special interests. But first, we'll go inside a major lobbying battle to see what happens when a Washington rookie takes on veteran lobbyists.
Our program continues in just a moment from American Public Media.
Suarez: I'm Ray Suarez. You're listening to "Imperial Washington," an American RadioWorks documentary, from American Public Media.
Imperial Washington is a tough realm to crack if you're an outsider to the lobbying game. To get behind the velvet ropes and the "Members Only" signs on Capitol Hill, you need money and ideas and you need to know the right people. That's why so many lobbyists are former politicians and government insiders.
We asked somebody who knows Washington well to give us an inside look. Jill Barshay watches lobbyists square off every day as a reporter with Congressional Quarterly magazine. Jill decided to walk us through a lobbying battle that unfolded recently. It's a curious fight over regulating the Internet that brought a newcomer to Washington: the Internet giant Google. Google needed a crash course in how to court the members of Congress. Jill Barshay followed the story for the six months.
[Capitol Hill corridor]
Jill Barshay: When I started working in Washington five years ago, the first thing I learned was this town is run by lobbyists, not politicians. On my first assignment, I got beaten to a story because a lobbyist leaked the text of a bill to one of my competitors. Then I noticed when senators wrote amendments to the laws they were drafting, they often used the exact same wording. How could this be? "Oh, lobbyists wrote the amendments," an aide told me.
I made a mental note to myself: Make friends with lobbyists.
So I did. And soon I felt like a Washington insider myself, with lobbyists leaking me documents and trying to get me to write stories with their slant. As a tax reporter, I knew lobbyists for lots of businesses. But until quite recently, I had never talked with Google. The search engine giant is based in Mountain View, California. It didn't have an office here in Washington and it didn't want one.
Alan Davidson of Google.
But in 2005, Google found itself facing a problem it couldn't solve with technology. It wanted government action. Here's the thing: Google needs the Internet, but it doesn't own the Internet. Telephone and cable TV companies own the wires that string the Internet together. If those telecom companies get their way, Google might have to pay a lot more than it does now to reach its costumers.
Remember when the Internet was created? People called it the information superhighway. [Fast car passes] Right now, once you're on the highway, travel is free. [Car passes] But, with more heavy traffic on the Internet, telecom companies want to build new fast lanes with tollbooths.
In 2005, the head of what is now AT&T announced this tollbooth plan for the Internet. Amazon, Yahoo, eBay, all the big Internet sites were up in arms. They couldn't ask the Bush administration for help. Republican regulators had just decided the Internet should be a regulation free zone, exactly as the telephone companies wanted. So, Google and the other Internet companies had nowhere to turn but Congress. They decided to press for a new law calling for "Net neutrality."
Under Net neutrality, all sites would be treated the same. No fast lane. No slow lane. No new fees for extra cargo. Neutral territory. Google had to give up its quiet life in Mountain View, California and learn how to fight on Capitol Hill. The company hired Alan Davidson. He's a former space station engineer who worked for a public policy nonprofit in D.C. For a technology company like Google, it seemed a perfect fit. But in this battle, Davidson says Google felt like David against Goliath.
Davidson is up against a big-time player with long experience courting powerful people in Imperial Washington.
At the U.S. Telecom Association, the trade association for the phone companies, the lobby is sleek and wired.
Ed Merlis is the top lobbyist for the phone companies. He told me he's been paying many visits to the Hill to explain why Google's Net neutrality was a bad idea.
Merlis told Congress that the telecoms need to make upgrades to the Internet so we can get videos, music and software even faster than we do today. And to pay for those upgrades, the telecoms needed to charge higher fees to big users like Google and Yahoo and eBay. Otherwise they'll have to pass on the cost on to the rest of us. It's a pro-consumer spin.
[Opening door; entering reception area]
To get the other side of the story, I headed for Google's new Washington digs. I arrived at the address Google gave me. There was no sign. It was kind of a generic reception area, not what I expected from an innovative Internet giant.
Down the hall from the reception desk is Alan Davidson's small office. A framed print of Google's multicolored logo is the only sign that this is Google's Headquarters in Washington.
But now that he had an office, Davidson needed to start lobbying. He tried laying some facts before Congress with a little spin of his own. Instead of talking about Google's profits, Davidson talked about the future health of the Internet. He argued that the Net's been a vibrant laboratory for entrepreneurs. But if telephone companies create two highways, startup companies won't be able to afford the fast lane and they'll never win the race.
Got it. It's not us we're worried about. It's the little guy.
Google teamed up with eBay, Amazon and Yahoo. Non-profits joined its cause. Democrats were happy to take a stand against President Bush's administration and volunteered to sponsor bills. Davidson had ideas, talking points and allies. The first big test was in the House.
Gigi Sohn runs Public Knowledge, one of Google's non-profit allies. She was worried.
Google learned its first big lesson in Imperial Washington: it's not enough to be a smart, wonky guy with persuasive facts on your side. You need friends at the palace, meaning friends in the party in power. Google snapped into action, pooled its resources with the other Internet companies and bought access. They hired Republican insiders including a big gun, Ed Kutler, a Republican lobbyist who was a top staffer for Newt Gingrich.
Meaning, Kutler built up a lot of political influence in a short time. Now he's the perfect insider with Republicans on the Hill.
Kutler needed to find something in Net neutrality for Republicans to like. These Web companies are innovators. They spawn small businesses. That kind of thing. Kutler found a grandmother selling her crafts on eBay who fit the message and it was no accident she was from Alaska.
They flew the Alaska grandmother to Washington and Kutler escorted her to Ted Stevens' office.
While Google worked to become a D.C. insider, its non-profit allies gathered troops and whipped up support in cyberspace. One ally was Free Press, a non-profit that lobbies on media issues. Its policy director is an idealistic grad student named Ben Scott.
Ben Scott built a coalition of strange bedfellows. It began with a simple idea.
Michelle Combs is the spokesperson for the Christian Coalition. Her group typically focuses on pro-life and pro-marriage policies but Combs says she was worried that an Internet fast-lane would leave them in the dust.
The Christian Coalition took out ads with MoveOn.org on behalf of Net neutrality. Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge says these groups and the hundreds of others would turn the Save the Internet coalition into a formidable grassroots organization.
The grassroots filled blogs with talk of Net neutrality and posted homemade treatises and PowerPoint presentations and even the occasional slick video.
The video shows a bunch of eccentric Internet celebrities dancing around in tights. E-mail links to the video traveled around the world.
The telecom companies took notice of the coalition's success on the Internet and decided to respond with their own blogs and viral videos. They pay Scott Cleland, a former telecom industry analyst, to blog all day long on a site called netcompetition.org.
This marks one of the first times that professional lobbying has taken to the blogosphere. It's a lot of spin, but sometimes there are actual ideas and arguments. It's kind of quaint, the way you'd imagine a public policy debate ought to be.
Cleland also doesn't buy Google's whole David-and-Goliath line about how outgunned Google is in Washington that the company has to rely on grassroots users to carry their message. Google's stock is worth almost $150 billion, making it bigger and richer than any of the telecoms it's fighting against.
So are Cleland's benefactors: the telephone and cable companies. They had Republican support, but to really sew things up, they needed a prominent Democrat. They tapped Mike McCurry, a former Clinton press secretary. Ask him why he got hired, and he manages to answer the question and spin his employer's position all in one sentence.
Got it: heavy-handed federal regulation. Who would be for that? To fight it, McCurry invited some bedfellows of his own.
McCurry got black and Latino groups to join the phone companies. Hands off the Internet, or HOTI as he lamented in hindsight, was born. McCurry had a strong hand. In early June of 2006, the House passed a bill just the way the phone and cable companies wanted it: with no Net neutrality. As the bill moved to the Senate, the phone companies stepped up their advertising in Washington.
Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, was Google's staunchest ally in the Senate. He remembers the lobbying was intense.
And in an unlikely twist, this lobbying battle became a hit on Jon Stewart's Daily Show. In late June, Senator Stevens, the committee Chairman who was visited by the eBay crafter from Alaska, held a hearing to finish up his telecommunications bill.
Viewers converted the Stewart bit into a video clip and passed that around the Internet. It galvanized the Internet community that supported Google.
Back in Washington, Senator Stevens managed to muscle his bill favoring the phone companies through his committee. Google's side was on life support. Their only hope was to stall. Google's friend, Senator Wyden, obliged.
Wyden would need to convince enough senators that Google's Net neutrality was important enough to derail an entire telecom act. That required immense political pressure. Google's grassroots friends urged their members to blast their senators with emails and hold rallies around the country.
They collected 1 million signatures for a Net neutrality petition. Their pressure was enough to hang up the bill in the Senate until the 2006 elections. Voters turned control of Congress over to the Democrats. GOP legislation, including the anti-Google telecom bill, was dead.
Senator Wyden credits public opinion, not lobbyists and their money, for stopping the telecom side.
In truth, nobody won. The telephone companies didn't get a telecom bill that they wanted and Google didn't get any Net neutrality law, but lobbyists got a lot of money. Google alone says it has spent $1 million on its lobbying activities. Its rival, the U.S. Telecom Association, spent more than $15 million in the first half of 2006, more than any other lobbying group in the nation.
Google didn't win round one, but Adam Davidson says all the money and time spent lobbying was worth it.
Right now, Google is already fighting in round two. Its coalition is pressing the Bush administration to block telecom fees for the Internet fast lane and the Internet companies are eyeing round three: lobbying the new Democratic Congress for a law.
This time around, they're playing the imperial Washington game by time honored rules. Google started a Political Action Committee. That's a fund executives and other employees can contribute to. Lobbyists use the money to make contributions of lawmakers who support their cause because to really get things done in the imperial city, you need ideas, you need friends, and you need money.
Suarez: Jill Barshay is a reporter with Congressional Quarterly.
I'm Ray Suarez. You're listening to "Imperial Washington," from American RadioWorks.
To see the videos, ads, and blogs mentioned in this story, visit our Web site, AmericanRadioWorks.org. There, you can also sign up for our podcast, public radio documentaries with you, wherever you go. That's at AmericanRadioWorks.org.
Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Our program continues in just a moment from American Public Media.
Suarez: From American Public Media, this is "Imperial Washington," an American RadioWorks documentary. I'm Ray Suarez.
The people who represent special interests don't just court members of Congress on Capitol Hill and in its surrounding restaurants and hotel suites. They've found it pays to sponsor lavish trips to faraway places.
Republican Representative Jeff Flake recalls an infamous junket sponsored by lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Abramoff is now in a minimum-security prison. His golf outing ranks among the more lurid examples of political corruption in recent years. The Scotland trip and many others came to light during a two-year investigation by American RadioWorks and Marketplace.
The last Congress failed to overhaul its travel rules. The new Congress has pledged to reform travel as part of a campaign to clean up corruption and influence-peddling on Capitol Hill.
Martin Frost is a former Democratic Congressman.
Chris Farrell spoke with the reporters who broke a series of stories about free trips for lawmakers and their staffs. He has this story about the rise, and fall, and uncertain future of the privately-funded Congressional junket.
[Swaying beach music]
Farrell: Ah, sipping a drink by the cabana at the beach.
[Thwack; sound of a golf ball]
Playing a round of golf at an exclusive club.
[Jet plane taking off]
Flying on a private jet to a luxury resort.
It's an ideal environment for influence peddlers. Imagine having the ear of a member of Congress for hours on a plush corporate jet and then play golf or fly-fish together, share meals and drinks, smoke cigars and exchange tall tales late at night in a luxurious setting. And of course, all this cozy activity takes place far from public scrutiny. James Thurber is a political scientist at American University
Special interests spend a lot of money building close relationships on the road. Between January 2000 and August 2006, members of Congress and their staff went on almost 26,000 trips nearly $55 million, all paid for by special interests. We know this thanks to an investigation by Steve Henn of Marketplace and Rocky Kistner of American RadioWorks. Members of Congress and their staffs have to report their privately-funded travel on special disclosure forms, but hardly anyone ever looked at those documents until Steve and Rocky did. We wondered whether the publicity about these trips had put a damper on junkets, and we wanted to hear some of the details of their investigation. So I sat down with Steve and Rocky to talk about their series of stories and the work they're still doing following the money trail.
I asked Steve Henn what first caught his attention about privately-funded congressional travel.
Let's listen to a story from the series that gives us a sense of just how widespread this kind of lobbying is: the intense one-on-one lobbying you can only do if you can find a way to hang around with a Congress member for hours or for days.
Henn: Jim Albertine is the past president of the American League of Lobbyists. He says lobbying is the art of persuasion, not influence peddling, and the best way to make your case with a member of Congress is to have the kind of time only a trip can provide.
House and Senate rules ban registered lobbyists from paying for congressional travel. But lobbyists like Albertine are allowed to set up the trips for their clients and often tag along. His all-time favorite trip involved a boat ride from Charleston, South Carolina to the resort island Hilton Head.
Getting members to come isn't always easy. They're busy people and House and Senate rules require that trips be related to some kind of official business, like a meeting, a conference, or a fact-finding mission. So Albertine says there has to be a hook.
Little wonder the most popular destination, particularly in the winter and spring, is the state of Florida.
A list of the most popular congressional destinations in Florida reads like a guide to top-tier golf resorts and spas. The Breakers in Palm Beach, the PGA National Resort and Spa in the Boca in Boca Raton. Since 2000, legislators have visited Turnberry Isle's Resort and Spa nearly 70 times. Set on 300 meticulously-landscaped acres, Turnberry markets itself as a gated, tropical paradise.
The spa offers 60 different treatments.
Farrell: Oh, I wouldn't dream of it either. I'm talking with reporters Steve Henn and Rocky Kistner who spent two years investigating privately-funded congressional travel for American RadioWorks and Marketplace. Steve, what is allowed?
Farrell: One aspect of this investigation that I found most important is that lobbyists are out to influence more than just elected members of Congress. Lobbyists in Washington also court the high ranking congressional staffers that work for the people we elect. Here's another story from the investigation
Steve Henn: Bill Paxon is a lobbyist and a former member of Congress. He says privately-sponsored trips are essential.
But Ken Boehm, chairman of the conservative National Legal Policy Center, says these trips are unseemly.
Staff travel has received little scrutiny until our team spent more than a year sorting through 25,000 disclosure forms. We found special interests spending tens of millions of dollars buying face time with congressional aids with almost no oversight. Ken Boehm says bankrolled trips provide a lifestyle many staffers can't afford.
Farrell: Rocky Kistner and Steve Henn are continuing to stay on top of this story. I asked Steve Henn if revelations of Congress getting together with lobbyists at posh resorts had much of an impact.
Farrell: Reporters Steve Henn and Rocky Kistner talking about their investigation into Congressional travel for Marketplace and American RadioWorks.
The betting among long-time Washington observers is that the new 110th Congress will put drastic restrictions on privately sponsored Congressional travel. Frank Pallone, a veteran Democratic Congressman from New Jersey, favors an outright ban.
Okay, shutting down an activity plagued by abuse is worthwhile. But in thinking over about what gives Washington its imperial image - the hidden perks, slick lobbying campaigns, the plush travel - I'm struck how much of what goes on comes down to shadows and sunlight. Shadows, because members of Congress and lobbyists alike prefer keeping the average voter in the dark, husbanding information. But with more sunshine, putting everything out on the Internet, embracing openness, disclosure, voters can decide whether activities pass the smell test. Power and privilege abhor sunshine. That's why Justice Louis Brandeis called sunshine "the best disinfectant."
Suarez: I'm Ray Suarez. We've put the last six years of congressional-travel disclosures on our Web site so that you can look up your members of Congress and their staff and see where they've been traveling and who's paying for it. That's at AmericanRadioWorks.org. There, you can listen to this program again, sign up for our podcast, and visit our archives. That's all at AmericanRadioWorks.org
"Imperial Washington" was produced by Sasha Aslanian, Jill Barshay and Chris Farrell. It was edited by Catherine Winter.
Our segment on lobbying was produced in cooperation with Congressional Quarterly.
Our series on congressional travel was produced in conjunction with the Marketplace, the Medill School of Journalism and the Center for Public Integrity. The project manager for American RadioWorks is Misha Quill, associate producer Ellen Guettler. Mixing by Craig Thorson and Tom Mudge. Web producer Ochen Kaylan. Production assistance from Kathleen Ward and Cally Carswell. The executive editor is Stephen Smith. The consulting editor is Bill Buzenberg.
Support for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. American RadioWorks is the documentary unit of American Public Media.
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