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District of Corruption

So Damn Much Money is the title of Bob Kaiser’s penetrating book on the explosion of lobbying and corruption in Washington over the past quarter century. Kaiser is right, and so is Barack Obama in his attempt to attenuate the corrosive links between lobbying and government--even with the hiccup created by Tom Daschle’s withdrawal.

In over 39 years in Washington, I have seen the city transformed from a sterile national capital akin to Canberra or Brasilia into a social, cultural, culinary, and economic metropolis that can (almost) compete with London and Paris. In 1969, when I arrived here, there was limited regional theater, the Smithsonian museums, and a literal handful of “exotic” restaurants (the most exotic of which was a Cuban dive called the Omega). Fancy clothing was the purview of Raleigh’s, where Hickey-Freeman was as hip as it got.

Today, the museums are world-class, as are the restaurants, the art scene, the fashion. But all this pales in comparison to the biggest change: the sheer amount of money sloshing around. In 1970, the federal budget was all of $195 billion. Today, the budget is over $3 trillion.

With so many federal dollars at stake, the capital injected into the system to influence government decisions has exploded. Law firms, lobbying firms, public relations firms--all have mushroomed over the past four decades, creating thousands of high-paying jobs, some going well into the seven figures.

In 1969, a member of Congress earned $42,500. Today, the pay is nearly four times that, $169,300. But in 1969, the salary of a first-year associate at prime Washington firms was around $10,000--while today, the starting pay for a first-year associate is $160,000, not including hefty bonuses for those who have clerked for a federal judge. Back then, a senior partner in a Washington law firm would earn a bit more than a member of Congress; today, that partner might make ten times a congressional salary.

The disparities have grown even sharper with lobbyists. In 1969, a newly minted lobbyist with solid Capitol Hill experience could count on making a touch more than the $10,000 they earned as congressional staff. Today, the congressional staffer making $50,000 can look at a peer making five or six times that much as a lobbyist. An assistant secretary in an executive department can make similar multiples upon leaving office and taking up lobbying. The explosion of public relations and lobbying firms has meant that huge conglomerates like Burson-Marsteller, Ogilvy, Hill & Knowlton, and WPP have bought up boutique firms created by former executive branch and congressional staffers, turning these staffers into instant multi-millionaires.

It is no wonder that the Washington area is now filled with neighborhoods of three-million-dollar houses; that the city now has its own version of Rodeo Drive, with a Jimmy Choo shoe store even.

Living in a prosperous, vibrant city is nice. But the corrupting influence of all that money is palpable. For senior members of Congress, it is not easy to see one’s peers--much less one’s former employees--leave the Hill and make so much more money. The seemingly inexplicable petty corruption of powerhouses like Dan Rostenkowski and Ted Stevens can be explained, I believe, by their belief that they were making such immense sacrifices to stay in public service that a few additional perks were well-deserved--and still left them far poorer than their lobbyist friends. And for the first time, we have young people who enter public service, not out of idealism or even a thirst for power, but out of a desire to make money.

Jack Abramoff and his colleagues showed that corruption can be painfully blatant. But often a more subtle dynamic is present: congressional staffers, members of Congress, and executive officials answer the phone calls and see the unsavory clients of lobbyists who enjoy prime tickets to Redskins games and golf at Burning Tree or might at some future point be their employers--who wants to alienate someone who might hold the key to a million-dollar job? Laws and regulations get more complicated when drafted by staffers and agency officials who know their market value is much higher when they are the ones who can interpret the nuances or find the loopholes when they leave government service.

Many of these lobbyists and consultants are my friends; most are very honorable people, but all--including Tom Daschle, a man of real integrity and strong basic values--are caught up in a system that is becoming more difficult to keep on the straight and narrow

That is why President Obama’s tough ethics and lobbying restrictions, the most far-reaching ever, are so welcome. Obama’s executive order has a blanket gift ban, will block lobbyists from taking jobs in his administration in any area where they have lobbied over the previous two years, and will bar administration officials from lobbying his administration at all after they leave office--for what could be a full eight years.

There is no doubt that some extremely talented people will be barred from taking jobs in the administration--and others will shrink from the prospect, given the hit on their future earning capability. But there are many talented people who will answer the call to public service without seeing it as an inevitable route to riches. In the rare case where a person is deemed indispensable, there is a waiver provision (first employed for Obama’s nominee for Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn) but the president has pledged to make it very rare. And, as the Lynn nomination shows, each waiver will get a lot of scrutiny.

Of course, there is another serious price, which has become more apparent over the past few days. Set tough standards, combine them with the kind of vetting process that is the equivalent of full body cavity searches, and you will inevitably have casualties, like Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer.

None of this suggests that Obama should rethink or dilute either his ethics reform package or his willingness to recruit Washington insiders for key positions. And tough as the reform measures are, they are only the first step in breaking the corrupting influence of money in Washington. Ideally, these moves will encourage Congress to create its own sharper limitations on members and staff moving into lucrative lobbying posts. And it is now critical to pass campaign finance reform that tilts the system dramatically toward small donors and away from big shots, including Washington lobbyists. These steps will not end corruption or the impact of money; a huge federal government invites both. They will not keep some nominees from stepping into embarrassing situations; indeed, they may result in some very good people deciding it is not worth entering government. But at least, for the first time in a long time, public service is being framed as a calling, not as a springboard to get a larger piece of that huge pie.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

By Norman Ornstein