What Is K Street’s Project?
By THOMAS FRANK
Representative Bob Ney, the Ohio Republican who did such generous favors for the casino clients of Jack Abramoff, announced his retirement from Congress on Aug. 7; the next morning The Washington Post reported that he had acted under pressure from his fellow Ohioan John Boehner, who is said to have told Ney that, if he stood for re-election and lost, he “could not expect a lucrative career on K Street.”
This is one of those remarkable moments when the rhetoric falls away and the mysteries of conservative government are briefly revealed: K Street, synonymous with the corporate lobbying industry, will not abide a man whose reputation imperils the Republican majority, even though he has earned that reputation in the service of K Street’s leading personality. Irredeemably tainted by his work for K Street (pronounces K Street, via the trusty Boehner), Bob Ney is now ineligible for public office. The corporate lobbying industry demands that the voters of southeastern Ohio submit a different Republican to Washington.
Besides, there are Ney’s children to think of, as Boehner helpfully pointed out. They are of college age now, and college, as we all know, is damnably expensive. If Ney wants his descendants to remain on the right side of the nation’s growing class divide, he must have K Street’s money. So the word comes down from the industry: The time has passed for “freedom fries” and sushi at Jack Abramoff’s restaurant. Bob Ney must fall on his sword, doing K Street’s bidding in political death as he did in life.
It has been many years since I was first shocked by a news item about Washington lobbyists, a story about some K Street hit man offing a proposed regulation, or a notice about some corporate grandee contributing to candidates from both parties, thus ensuring his “access” regardless of who won. But like many of the degrading things that shocked me once — bowl games named for corporations, cleavage-themed chain restaurants — those provocations now seem petty and even innocent.
Because with K Street the insults to democracy just keep mounting: the mass exodus to the pharmaceutical lobby of the people who wrote the prescription drug benefit, for example. Or the increasing integration of lobbyists into campaigning and lawmaking, as Thomas Edsall reported last winter. Or the well-known emblems of the rot: Bob Ney’s golf weekend in Scotland, Rick Santorum’s Tuesday morning lobbyist parleys, the price list that Duke Cunningham drew up for the convenience of his lobbyist friends.
Why does this pay-for-policy spectacle not bother us more? Perhaps because it’s so easy to tell ourselves, well, both parties do it. Besides, K Street is sprawling and confusing, with squadrons of lawyers representing every industry’s diverging interests and demands, many of these innocent and some of them even healthful.
But K Street is not neutral. From all its complex machinations emerges a discernible political project best described by Joseph Goulden in “The Superlawers” back in 1972, when the lobbying business was so many acorns beside today’s forest of towering oaks. The “Washington lawyers,” Goulden wrote, had over the years “directed a counterrevolution unique in world economic history. Their mission was not to destroy the New Deal, and its successor reform acts, but to conquer them, and to leave their structures intact so they could be transformed into instruments for the amassing of monopolistic corporate power.” (Goulden, by the way, is no radical: he is a former director at the very conservative press watchdog Accuracy in Media.)
K Street’s bright young men fill the top posts at federal agencies; K Street’s money keeps wages low and prescription drug costs high; K Street’s “superlawyers” fight to make our retirement insecure; K Street’s deregulation gurus turn our electric utilities into the plaything of Wall Street. What K Street wants from government is often the opposite of what the public wants. And yet what K Street wants, far too frequently it gets — if not by the good offices of Bob Ney, then by the timely disappearance of the now useless Bob Ney.
Whether we are Republicans or Democrats, we are all aware of how much more power corporations hold over everyday life than they used to. “Those who own the country should govern the country,” John Jay used to say, and thanks in large part to K Street they do.
Thomas Frank is the author, most recently, of “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.’’ He is a guest columnist during August.