Paying to not Play: Revisiting the Iron Triangle


In the mercenary culture of Washington, discretion is often the better part of valor. There wasn’t much of the former when Mark Penn, who at the time was the senior strategist for the campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton and also chief executive of P.R. firm Burson-Marsteller, met with representatives of the government of Colombia. They sought passage of a trade deal that Penn’s other boss, Clinton, had opposed on the campaign trail. Penn ended up a former top strategist.

Over on Real Time, my colleague Anupama has unearthed a slightly more valorous lobbyist-turned-campaign official. Thomas Loeffler, a former member of Congress, a bundler for President George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns, and now co-chair of the McCain campaign, is a registered foreign agent (that is, a lobbyist) for the government of Saudi Arabia. Before joining McCain’s campaign, Loeffler and his firm’s employees averaged almost ten contacts a month with U.S. government officials (including Sen. McCain) during which they would promote the interests of the Saudi government. Since Loeffler joined McCain’s campaign, those contacts have altogether stopped. But the payments from the Saudi government haven’t. The Saudis have paid Loeffler’s firm $3.5 million, even though it’s had just one contact with federal officials since Loeffler joined McCain’s campaign.

Running for the White House in 2000, Sen. John McCain described an iron triangle of “special interests, campaign finance and lobbying.” And also, “money, lobbyists and legislation.” William Safire pointed out the two sets of three corners, but note the one in common: lobbyists. Even those like McCain (and more recently Sen. Barack Obama), who decry their influence seem to end up in the middle of the triangle.