Republican Culture of Corruption
If You Don't Know About the K Street Project, You Don't Know Jack
understand how the culture of corruption arose that now infects the
leadership in Washington, DC, it is important to understand the origins
and functions of the K Street Project. Below are some of the essential
In 1994, the right wing gained control over the House of
Representatives on the strength of a series of reforms embodied in the
so-called "Contract with America."
The contract ostensibly "aimed to restore the faith and trust of the
American people in their government" and end the "cycle of scandal and
disgrace" in government. A year later, then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay
(R-TX) was already plotting to breach that contract by undertaking a
project to develop cozier relations with Washington, D.C. lobbyists.
High-minded policy goals would take a backseat in DeLay's
pay-to-play system where the success of lobbyists would be dictated not
by how compelling a case they could make, but rather by how willing
they would be to line the pockets of DeLay and his colleagues.
Conceptualized as a tool for the right-wing preservation of power, the "K Street Strategy," as it became known, created the culture in which Jack Abramoff's criminal activity was encouraged and rewarded.
HOW THE K STREET PROJECT WORKED: In his dealings with K Street lobbyists, DeLay explicitly stated he would operate by "the old adage of punish your enemies and reward your friends." (To gain influence over legislation, trade associations and corporate lobbyists were ordered to do three things: 1) refuse to hire Democrats, 2) hire only deserving Republicans as identified by the congressional leadership, and 3) contribute heavily to Republican coffers.) Despite being admonished by the House Ethics Committee numerous times
for his conduct, DeLay's pay-to-play machine continued to plow
full-speed ahead. With federal benefits up for sale, corporations
quickly identified the need to need to hire more lobbyists, giving rise
to one of the greatest growth industries in America. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, proudly proclaimed in 2002 that [conservatives] "will have 90-10 [percentage advantage in staffing] on K Street and 90-10 business giving."
IDEAS TOOK A BACKSEAT: Lost in the pay-to-play
system is any concern for good governance. The Wall Street Journal
recently editorialized, the real problem "isn't about lobbyists so much as it is the atrophying of its principles.
As their years in power have stretched on, House Republicans have
become more passionate about retaining power than in using that power
to change or limit the federal government. Gathering votes for serious
policy is difficult and tends to divide a majority. Re-election unites
them, however, so the leadership has gradually settled for raising
money on K Street and satisfying Beltway interest groups to sustain
their incumbency. This strategy has maintained a narrow majority, but
at the cost of doing anything substantial. ... Ideas are an afterthought,
when they aren't an inconvenience."
IMBALANCE OF POWER: The K Street scheme had a
dramatic influence on policy. While it is well-recognized that business
interests profited from the K Street Strategy, less attention is paid
to those who lost out. As Michael Crowley, a writer for The New
Republic, recently noted on C-Span, "In
times like these when we have a budget crunch, it's not subsidies for
corporations or tax loopholes that go; it's Medicaid and aid and health
care for low-income disadvantaged people who don't really have lobbies
in Washington with the clout equivalent to some of America's biggest
corporations." The last few months of Congress are a testament to that
fact. In the name of cutting federal spending, Congress recently
proposed a budget trimming Medicaid funding, federal child-support enforcement, and student loans to save $40 billion. But the right wing quickly turned around and distributed these savings back out in the form of business-friendly tax cuts.
A SYSTEM MADE FOR ABRAMOFF: Jack Abramoff was "closely associated with the K Street Project."
In fact, the system was a perfect fit for Abramoff, given his stated
desire to shun low-paying political activist work in favor of striking
it rich. "I wanted to make money,"
he said. A former chairman of the College Republican National
Committee, Abramoff decided that his connections in the conservative
movement could help him at a time when Republicans were rising to power
in Washington. Abramoff developed a motley crew of right-wing allies,
including anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, Christian right-wing leader Ralph Reed, and a host of conservative lawmakers. "He is someone on our side," said DeLay chief of staff Ed Buckham. "He has access to DeLay."
And Abramoff played the game as DeLay wanted it played. By securing
clients with deep pockets and federal legislative interests, Abramoff
was able to contribute heavily to Republican leaders (raising at least $120,000
for the 2004 Bush campaign). What eventually brought Abramoff down was
how audaciously he worked the system. He now concedes that he illegally
"offered and provided a stream of things of value to public officials in exchange for official acts and influence
and agreements to provide official action and influence." In return for
legislative and personal favors, the things of value he provided to
lawmakers included "foreign and domestic travel, golf fees, frequent
meals, entertainment, election support for candidates for government
office, employment for relatives of officials and campaign
RAMPANT ABUSE OF POWER: New York Times columnist David Brooks explained "the real problem wasn't DeLay, it was DeLayism,
the whole culture that merged K Street with the Hill, and held that
raising money is the most important way to contribute to the team." The
culture permeated the entire congressional leadership; they were willing buyers
of what lobbyists were selling. "We simply have too much power," said
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), speaking of lawmakers' ability to target tax
dollars for particular projects, contractors or campaign donors. The
current race for the majority leader post
left vacant by DeLay reveals the far-reaching impact of the K Street
culture. Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO) shared connections to Abramoff and has
taken other actions to benefit corporate lobbyists. Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) "has strong connections to lobbyists:
He met weekly with leading lobbyists to enlist their support and
discuss strategy during his four years as House Republican Conference
chairman, from 1995 to 1998." Very few of the congressmen who have been
in positions of power over the last decade have clean hands. Many of
them share the pay-to-play values of Tom DeLay and the K Street
ideology of Jack Abramoff.
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