Bob Corker, the Senate’s lone Republican holdout on the GOP tax-reform bill, flipped his vote to yes after the legislation was finalized on Friday. “After great thought and consideration, I believe that this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make U.S. businesses domestically more productive and internationally more competitive is one we should not miss,” Corker, a commercial real estate magnate who’s retiring from the Senate at the end of next year, said in a statement. A day later, the International Business Times revealed that a last-minute provision in the bill, granting a major tax deduction to owners of real estate partnerships, would benefit Corker by about $1.2 million per year.
Corker, who is already under federal investigation for alleged insider trading involving a real-estate firm, spent the weekend making a series of less-than-convincing statements justifying his switch. He first told IBT that he hadn’t read the bill. Then he wrote an angry letter to Senate leaders questioning how this provision got into the bill. As #CorkerKickback trended on Twitter, the senator also claimed that the language was part of the House version of the legislation. Experts rejected that. “This new language can’t be found in either the House-passed or Senate-passed bills,” Matt Gardner of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy told IBT.
Corker originally opposed the tax bill because of its impact on the federal budget deficit.
And yet, the bill being voted on this week could still “deepen the debt burden on future generations,” as Corker defines it. So why did he change his vote, if he wasn’t influenced by the potential for personal enrichment?
This episode represents a marked shift in how self-interest plays out in Washington, even compared with a few years ago. During the health care debate from 2009 to 2010, Senator Ben Nelson was savaged over the “Cornhusker kickback,” which would have subsidized Nebraska’s share of payments for expanding Medicaid; the provision was pulled from the final legislation. Similar deals increased Medicaid spending in Louisiana to win Senator Mary Landrieu’s vote and gave a $100 million grant for a public hospital in Connecticut to win Senator Chris Dodd’s. But at least those measures were intended to benefit residents of particular states—some of their poorest citizens, in fact. In the case of Corker, he gets the benefit personally.
The interests of the GOP donor class and the political class have never been more aligned. As campaigns have become increasingly expensive, being rich has practically become a prerequisite to run for Congress. Campaign committees target the wealthy for candidates, because they can self-fund campaigns and travel in the same circles as major donors (or potential ones). Thus, the median net worth of a member of Congress as of 2013 was over $1 million, 18 times more than the median net worth of the entire population. Corker’s net worth is estimated at nearly $18 million, making him one of the richest members of Congress. So when lawmakers deliberate over giving tax cuts to the rich, they’re necessarily deciding about how to fatten their own wallets. In addition, the job options for former members of Congress after leaving office increasingly line up with the fates of large corporations. An astounding 434 former members of Congress, enough to almost fill the entire House of Representatives, are now lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
While observers scratch their heads about why Republicans would pass an unpopular tax bill, given how it could come back to bite them in the midterm elections, they fail to take this into account. The tax overhaul may be bad for Republicans’ future employment prospects as politicians, but not necessarily for their future employment as corporate lobbyists and consultants. If Republicans think that they’re going down in flames next year anyway—and some of them do—they might as well make sure corporate treasuries have more money to spend on ex-lawmakers who can help them navigate the bureaucracy. So if the bill causes politicians to lose their jobs, so what? There’s always a soft landing on K Street.
GOP politicians give corporations what they want not only out of naked self-interest, but in the interest of their former colleagues. A remarkable throwaway line in a Washington Post story about the aging of Congress notes: “Some senators face pressure to stay in office from former staffers whose K Street livelihood is in large part connected to clients with interests before that senator.” We have octogenarian senators in their hanging around Washington as a favor to friends. Someone’s profiting from those favors, and it isn’t the ironworker or the sales clerk.
Jeff Connaughton, a former Joe Biden aide turned lobbyist who wrote a tell-all book, described the collection of hangers-on in Washington as “The Blob.” These are former staffers and regulators and politicians who now work for corporations or lobby shops or think tanks. If you want to wield influence in Washington after rotating out of government, you have to fit in with The Blob and pay attention to their concerns.
Bob Corker is already rich, though the tax bill will make him a bit richer. But if he wants to get hired by a future Republican administration? If he wants to be appointed to some blue-ribbon panel or commission someday? If he wants to be seen as an éminence grise, hanging around TV green rooms and listened to on policy matters? Maybe he felt he had to play ball, voting yes on the bill as a favor to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who appears very keen to get enough votes so the seat that will soon be occupied by Doug Jones isn’t the margin of victory.
The Corker kickback reveals much about how Washington works. Yes, naked self-interest plays a role. But so does the general sleaziness of D.C. back-slapping and favor-making, always in service to the already rich and powerful. Corker can disingenuously claim he didn’t know how the bill would help him out, secure in the knowledge that any Republican tax bill would have a positive effect on his bank account. And he knows that playing along with what Republicans want, regardless of the impact on his Tennessee constituents, will raise his stature within conservative institutions. It’s the inevitable byproduct of a political system that has written ordinary people out of the story. There’s self-interest in the Republican tax bill because in Washington, there are few other interests left.