June 04, 2011

Wheeler-Dealers in Washington

Why the huge and much vilified lobbying industry will thrive, no matter who is in the White House.


I don't know what people are talking about when they say that Republicans and Democrats never get together for a drink after work anymore. Robert Kaiser's "So Damn Much Money" is filled with scenes of lobbyists and legislators of both parties meeting for dinner and drinks -- and trading favors. In fact, Mr. Kaiser, a Washington Post associate editor, begins his account in May 2005, on a rooftop overlooking the Capitol where hundreds of guests have gathered to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Democratic rainmaker Gerald Cassidy's lobbying firm.


As the sun sets in the distance behind the Lincoln Memorial, waiters at the lavish event serve miniburgers, tempura and other cocktail fare. The guests include Democratic lawmakers Robert Byrd and Nancy Pelosi, of course. But Republicans Tom DeLay, Roy Blunt and Robert Michel are on hand as well. Influence peddling is a bipartisan affair.

A year before, Mr. Cassidy had briefly agreed to hire the infamous Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was out of a job and under investigation for shady dealings with his Indian casino clients. The arrangement lasted all of four months. Mr. Cassidy went his own way, and Mr. Abramoff went to jail. What Mr. Kaiser attempts to do in "So Damn Much Money" is to tell the tale of how lobbying became such a huge and vilified industry and how a storied Beltway fixer like Gerald Cassidy could keep company with someone like Jack Abramoff.

It doesn't quite work. There are really two books here. One is a biography of Mr. Cassidy that traces his life from his humble beginnings in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to his success as a multimillionaire wheeler-and-dealer in the nation's capital. The other book-within-a-book is a shopworn jeremiad lamenting the current state of American politics. Over the past three decades, Mr. Kaiser argues, "the quality of governance in the United States" has "declined palpably." Two stock villains, money and Republicans, are to blame.

So Damn Much Money
By Robert G. Kaiser
(Knopf, 398 pages, $27.95)

The biography of Mr. Cassidy is a delight. The way Mr. Kaiser tells it, Mr. Cassidy is straight out of a Horatio Alger novel. He is the bright kid who overcomes a turbulent childhood, studies hard and earns a law degree (from Cornell), marries a vivacious Italian girl from Philadelphia, and moves to Florida to provide legal aid to migrant workers. There, in 1969, he meets Kenneth Schlossberg, his future business partner, and Sen. George McGovern, the South Dakota Democrat and chairman of the newly created Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. Mr. McGovern hires Mr. Cassidy, who moves his family to Washington a few months later and spends six years working for the senator before he gets replaced by -- talk about a low blow -- Bob Shrum, who would go on to notoriety as the Grim Reaper of Democratic presidential-campaign consulting.

It's when Mr. Cassidy finds himself out of work that things get interesting. He and Mr. Schlossberg cook up an idea to help the companies participating in the federal school-lunch program navigate Congress and the Agriculture Department. The men would use the contacts they made while working on Mr. McGovern's committee to satisfy clients and line their own pockets. The cash started coming in -- just a few crumbs at first, but then, as the school-lunch program expanded, by the tray-full. Their client list grew to include Nabisco, Pillsbury and General Mills. Mr. Cassidy and Mr. Schlossberg were innovative. Like all successful lobbyists, they had discovered how to traverse an unexplored part of our labyrinthine government.

The twists and turns in Mr. Cassidy's career make for engrossing reading. But then comes 1994 and those darn Republicans show up, and the Cassidy story gets lost in a thicket of the author's grievances about the triumph of "special interests." Somehow special interests weren't a problem when they were lining up for subsidies under the school-lunch program.

Thus begins the other book. The problem with it is that Mr. Kaiser would like to have things both ways. He wants to argue that the influence of money and fat-cat conservatives have turned Washington into a place where "the players have ignored or avoided a great many grave national problems." But he also wants to pay tribute to a lost Washington, the city where legislators had an "appetite for taking on serious national problems, including many related to poverty and inequality" and where bureaucracies were staffed with "devoted public servants" who "marched to their own drummers" and "were not enticed by the new incentives to get rich."

But of course it was the exponential growth of government during Mr. Kaiser's lost empyrean age that created the opportunities for graft exploited by the likes of Jack Abramoff. On Monday a lobbyist might help Tufts University get federal money for a nutrition center. But on Tuesday, on behalf of another client, he is persuading the government to revoke a competitor's gaming license -- and then persuading the competitor to hire him to persuade the government to reinstate it.

The commonality that both days share is the power of the state and its ability to influence the marketplace for good and ill. Lobbying, and everything that goes with it, is the result of democratic government in a pluralistic society. The larger the government, the larger the influence of lobbyists. The "special interests" belong to both parties -- and aggressively pursue their own agendas no matter who is in power. Mr. Kaiser enlightens us when he shares the secrets behind a lobbyist's success. But he spends far too much time lamenting a lost Washington that never really was.

Mr. Continetti is an associate editor of The Weekly Standard and the author of "The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine" (Doubleday, 2006).


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