One of the popular taglines used by Democratic candidates in this year’s elections was that the Republicans stormed into Washington in 1994 determined to change the way the capital works. Instead, came the punch line, Washington changed them. Links were tightened between the Republican leadership and the lobbyist community. Business groups won major legislative coups. Pet project earmarks exploded. Eventually scandals ensued.
Now, after a swift kick by the voters, the Democrats are back in control and K Street – the heart of the city’s lobbying community – is quickly adjusting to be ready when the new regime takes office in January. A story by Jeff Zeleny in today’s New York Times captures the mood:
Take, for example, Vic Fazio, a California Democrat who rose through the ranks of Congress and reveled in the majority for all but 4 of his 20 years in office. In his second career as a lobbyist, Mr. Fazio did not experience the pleasures of Democratic rule — until now. Suddenly he is in demand.
For Mr. Fazio, who is close to Representative Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who is set to become House speaker, the power switch is, quite simply, good for business. Companies are scrambling to fortify lobbying teams with well-connected Democrats.
Clearly, K Street will be ready when the Dems come marching in next January. The question is whether the Democrats will be ready for them. The incoming speaker has already promised that the new majority party will set high ethical standards, but that refrain has been spoken so often – by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, George Bush, et al – that no one really believes it any more.
I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s classic short story “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.” It’s a lot easier to resist temptation when nobody’s really trying to tempt you.
Now, with power, every lobbyist on K Street will want to be the Democrats’ new friend. There’ll be no shortage of temptations – beginning with the debt retirement fundraisers that the incoming freshmen will begin holding when they get to town. Or even before they get to town, since this is one place where the fundraising never stops.
It’s one thing for a Democratic candidate to run against the image of a sleazy, boorish, cigar-smoking lobbyist. It’s quite another thing to deal with the genuine article in person, especially when they show up in the office – or at a fundraiser – with a smile, a friendly handshake, a winning personality, and a Democratic voter registration card in their pocket.
Whatever the rhetoric on the campaign trail, and however low the esteem of lobbyists in the public eye, they are a fixture in Washington without which no governing takes place.
And that’s precisely what K Street is counting on when the 110th Congress takes office in January: business as usual.