Evenhanded study of the role of special-interest dollars in contemporary governance.
The average cost to mount a Senate campaign in 1974 was $437,000, notes Washington Post associate editor Kaiser (Why Gorbachev Happened, 1991, etc.). In 2006, that number was $7.92 million. Not coincidentally, the intervening period saw the rise of highly paid political consultants, expensive think tanks and lobbyists whose main job was to funnel money from one favored party to another while diverting substantial portions of it for overhead costs in ways that would make a pirate blush. Kaiser opens with the noted scoundrel Jack Abramoff, a protégé of former House powerbroker Tom DeLay, who in turn masterminded an arrangement with K Street that “was both brazen and remarkably successful.” If those lobbyists supplied the Republican Party with millions of dollars, then they would be allowed to participate in the legislative process and even propose bills on their own hook. Abramoff would become infamous for taking DeLay at his word, notably by bilking American Indian tribes out of vast fees for little in return. As Kaiser notes, however, lobbying of this sort was not the exclusive province of the Republicans. One of the recurrent figures in the book, Gerald Cassidy, was a Democratic Party stalwart who practically invented modern big-ticket lobbying, getting things done by becoming “a huge financial resource for members of Congress,” though Kaiser credits Cassidy with motives that, unlike most of those who followed him, were not entirely self-serving. The flood of money introduced into the political system through lobbying firms has been damaging to the political process, Kaiser maintains, if only because it puts politicians at that much more remove from the very real fiscal concerns of their constituents. The author offers a telling quote from Sen. Chuck Hagel: “We’ve blown past the ethical standards, we now play on the edge of the legal standards.” Apparently, laws are made only for those who can afford them.
Eye-opening, and a key to understanding how money works in Washington—for the most part, corruptly.