Barack Obama won the election with promises to clean up Washington. Can he really do that?
We shall see! My book describes a corroded culture in Washington. I have tried to show how money and lobbying have contributed to the conditions that Obama ran against so vigorously in the presidential campaign. But the problems are not superficial; by now this culture is deeply entrenched. With campaigns for the House and Senate routinely costing millions of dollars and government officials routinely passing through the revolving door from public service to private influence-peddling, uprooting the old culture will be difficult. I won’t say it's impossible, but I won't hold my breath awaiting the big clean-up, either. I think this is one of the biggest challenges Obama faces as our new president.
You've been an observer of Washington for over 40 years now. What drew you to write this book at this time?
Washington is my home town. I grew up in a political household, and have been part of "inside the Beltway" Washington since before we had a beltway (it opened in 1964). I’ve long been intrigued with the reporter's most basic question: how does it work? A few years ago I realized two things: the lobbying industry had become huge, and I didn't really understand how it worked. I decided to try to find out.
First I did a reporting project for my newspaper, The Washington Post. My inquiries led me to Cassidy & Associates, the first lobbying firm to try to "go public" by selling shares on the stock exchange. To do that Cassidy had to file a detailed description of its business with the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington. That document was fascinating, and took me to Gerald Cassidy himself. I told him I wanted to learn everything I could find out about him and his business. He wasn't thrilled with this announcement, but he ultimately decided to cooperate with me, and I was able to learn a great deal about him and his firm.
Doing that reporting persuaded me that I could use Cassidy's story to tell the broader tale of how Washington was transformed by money over the last three decades. For years I have wanted to write a big book about my home town. It turned out to be So Damn Much Money.
Did writing this book reveal anything new to you about Washington?
This is an embarrassing question. The answer is emphatically yes. Like any Washington reporter, I knew we had lots of lobbyists who gave lots of money to politicians, and who could affect the government's decision making. But those were all generalities. I had no idea how lobbyists actually operated, how they combined serious intellectual work with the courting of members of Congress and their staffs, how they used campaign contributions to advance their interests. Nor had I understood the degree to which the processes of government had become a huge profit center for lobbyists of many kinds.
Why did you choose to focus on Gerry Cassidy to tell the story of lobbying in Washington? (Why not a more notorious character like Jack Abramoff?)
From the outset I knew I wanted to find a lobbyist who was not notorious, who represented his profession without being a familiar figure in Washington. Though Cassidy's firm was the biggest in town when I started my reporting, he was far from famous. When I told friends I was working on a lobbyist named Cassidy, the most common response was, "Who is he?"
Cassidy's filing with the SEC, referred to above, gave me a great head start on my reporting. When Cassidy decided to cooperate with me, I decided I didn't have to look any farther.
I was well into my reporting by the time I realized the significance of Cassidy's own connection to Abramoff (the subject of chapter one of my book). I think that connection helped me tell my story, but as I have written in the book, I consider Abramoff an untypical example of the Washington lobbyist. Cassidy is much more representative, though no single person can stand in for the thousands of people who ply the same trade.
There isn't a single politician who would say that Washington doesn't need to be reformed. Yet all politicians take money from special interests and essentially perpetuate the cycle that is poisoning Washington. Why?
This is the heart of the matter. In fact you’re not quite right—there are politicians who accept the status quo without much question. But it is also true that most know something is terribly wrong. Their biggest failure, I think, is a failure of imagination—they can't imagine changing the world so profoundly that special-interest money ceased to be important. And it's true that this would be difficult; it may even be politically impossible. The key problem is the cost of modern campaigns. If you're going to run for the Senate today, you have to expect to spend $15 million, $20 million, even $25 million on your campaign. Where do you find that money? A few super-rich individuals finance their own campaigns, even at those levels, but most have to raise the dough. They raise it from their friends, and from the lobbyists and special interests, who are eager to give, or realize that giving is the price of their doing business.
How has the system of campaign finance changed Congress and our politics?
You're asking about what I think of as the second story line of my book. I've tried to intertwine the story of Gerry Cassidy and his firm with the history of how lobbying, money and the new technology of politics all conspired to paralyze Congress and leave most of the country's biggest problems un-addressed. One of the most important changes, I think, involves the kind of people who are willing to run for Congress now. Early in the book I describe the Senate of the late 1960s, when really big men strode through the Capitol and took on large issues, people like Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Jacob Javits, Phil Hart and Paul Douglas—names mostly forgotten today, but towering figures in their day. We don't have such people in Congress today. Personally I doubt that those men, were they alive now, would be attracted to a career in which, routinely, members of congress spend a day or more every week, year round, every year, raising money to fund their re-election campaigns.
What do you view as the biggest everyday/commonplace offense with regards to lobbying in Washington today?
I think the best answer to this question is pretty fundamental: For a generation or more, special interests and their lobbyists have helped create a stalemate in Washington. In the stalemate, we let big problems fester. We've known for decades that Social Security and Medicare are going broke, for example. What have we done about that? Nothing for more than 20 years. We know our health care system is broken, so what do we do about it? So far nothing. In recent decades American capitalism was transformed, but government regulation was not. Some feeble attempts were made to encourage government regulation of fancy financial instruments like derivatives, or of the giant hedge funds, but under wilting pressure from the affected parties, Congress never acted. So we got the Crash of 2008. Special interest lobbying played a key role in all these non-events, sadly.
Even though Obama turned down public financing for his campaign, the perception is that the majority of his money came from small donors without ties to any one industry. Does this make him less indebted to the special interests?
First, the filings now show that in fact, more of Obama's money came from large donors than from his huge base of small givers. Nevertheless, I think it is true that Obama has come to power with fewer obvious debts to special interests than any recent president, in part because his large donors come from many different walks of life. Many don't appear to be agents of particular interests. But it's too soon to draw conclusions. In the months ahead we will see, for example, whether he can resist pressures from the trade unions that supported him so strongly.
How much control, though, does a President really have if Congress is so reliant on special interest money?
This important question remains to be answered. Obama is a unique figure in our recent history. He won a bigger victory than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. He has a lot of political capital. Now we'll see how he uses it.
The founders thought they were creating a system in which Congress would be more powerful than the president. But in the modern era this has not been the case. Indeed, George W. Bush intimidated the Republican Congresses from 2001 through 2006, and almost always got his way. Congress is more likely to succumb to special interests when it thinks the country won't notice or understand what’s happening.
One more regarding our President-elect: if you could suggest one thing he should do to start "fixing" Washington, what would it be?
Can I make two suggestions? 1) Establish a rule that anyone who serves in the Obama administration cannot move from public service to lobbying or influence-peddling for three, four or even five years after they leave their government jobs. This would probably all but freeze the "revolving door" that has carried so many officials into the lobbying business in the last several decades. Interest groups and lobbying firms would not offer high-paying jobs to people who haven't been in the government for 3-5 years. 2) Announce that he will not appoint big campaign donors as ambassadors. This would startle many of the biggest donors, and be extremely healthy for the country.
Are lobbyists always a bad thing? Wouldn’t there be a downside if organizations along the lines of the American Cancer Society weren't able to advocate on their behalf?
A very good point. Not only is lobbying inevitable, protected by the Constitution, and a fundamental part of our system, it can also be very positive in some situations. I see absolutely nothing wrong with lobbying per se. The problems begin when the lobbyist operates in secret, uses money to advance his cause, creates corrupt alliances, stuff like that. Many noble causes are pursued by registered lobbyists—and many not so noble ones too, of course.
As one of your sources says, "Washington is a company town, and the business is lobbying." Is there really any reason to hope this will change? If so, what solutions do you see?
Again, I don't oppose lobbying. I think what bothers me most as a citizen is the corruption of the culture of Washington, which is now deeply cynical. Cashing in on public service for private gain is seen as perfectly normal by many participants in today’s system. Officials of our government soliciting and accepting contributions from the interests they influence or govern is widely seen as no big deal.
Lobbying will continue as long as the government’s actions affect the interests of citizens, corporations, cities and states and institutions of all kinds—in other words, forever. Lobbying doesn’t have to be corrupt—indeed, it often is entirely straightforward and above-board. What we need is a lot more transparency, and stricter rules. For instance, why not just ban contributions by registered lobbyists to the campaigns of federal officials, or limit them to a token amount, say $500? That wouldn’t end contributions—the lobbyists could get their clients to make them, for example, and the Supreme Court appears unwilling to ban contributions broadly. But a registered federal lobbyist's gifts to politicians probably could be controlled by law. Let’s try it.