Extortion Under Law

Still a good source for the big picture on the nexus of the Republican Party and lobbyists is this 2003 article from The Washington Monthly. It's a look at the K Street strategy, the virtual extortion racket (overseen in part by Rick Santorum) designed to pressure trade associations into filling their ranks of lobbyists with Republicans. The political benefits of this operation are pretty clear: high-paying jobs for Republican hacks (typically ex-congressional aides), which translate into more donations for the GOP naturally enough. But that's not all:

…jobs and campaign contributions are just the tip of the iceberg. Control a trade association, and you control the considerable resources at its disposal. Beginning in the 1990s, Washington's corporate offices and trade associations began to resemble miniature campaign committees, replete with pollsters and message consultants. To supplement PAC giving, which is limited by federal election laws, corporations vastly increased their advocacy budgets, with trade organizations spending millions of dollars in soft money on issue ad campaigns in congressional districts. And thanks to the growing number of associations whose executives are beholden to DeLay or Santorum, these campaigns are increasingly put in the service of GOP candidates and causes. Efforts like the one PhRMA made on behalf of Bush's Medicare plan have accompanied every major administration initiative. Many of them have been run out of the offices of top Republican lobbyists such as Ed Gillespie, whose recent elevation to chairman of the Republican National Committee epitomizes the new unity between party and K Street. Such is the GOP's influence that it has been able to marshal on behalf of party objectives not just corporate lobbyists, but the corporations themselves. During the Iraq war, for instance, the media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications Inc. had its stations sponsor pro-war rallies nationwide and even banned the Dixie Chicks, who had criticized White House policy, from its national play list.

That last point gives some sense of where the K Street strategy leads: if you can demand political tribute from trade associations, it follows that you ought to demand the same from the businesses behind them, and that extends not only to their donations but to their behavior more generally. Lobbies are bad enough when they're trying to get special favors from government (as distinct, I hasten to add, from purely defense measures against competitors who seek to annex the power of government to their own ends), but once lobbies have been inverted to enforce party disciplines on businesses and, by extension, ordinary life, we're dealing with something that goes far beyond politics as usual and simple corruption.

Is extortion too strong a word? Here's another excerpt from the Washington Monthly. You be the judge:

One seminal moment, never before reported, occurred in 1996 when Haley Barbour, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee, organized a meeting of the House leadership and business executives. "They assembled several large company CEOs and made it clear to them that they were expected to purge their Washington offices of Democrats and replace them with Republicans," says a veteran steel lobbyist. The Republicans also demanded more campaign money and help for the upcoming election. The meeting descended into a shouting match, and the CEOs, most of them Republicans, stormed out.

Ironically, to the extent that the K Street strategy has succeeded, it has helped ensure that the current crop of lobbying scandals would overwhelmingly implicate Republicans. Having driven out the competition, Republicans cannot get much cover by pointing to equally corrupt practices on the part of the Democrats. They're plenty corrupt, too, but during the Bush era they've had little opportunity to show just how far their tendencies in that direction run.

Addendum: One Democrat who has given his party some representation in the recent spate of lobbying scandals is William Jefferson.

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