Our Corrupt Politics: It’s Not All Money

Reference: New York Review of Books
March 22, 2012

By Ezra Klein

Books in review:

Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist

by Jack Abramoff

WND, 303 pp., $25.95

by Lawrence Lessig

Twelve, 317 pp., $26.99

In 1982, Mississippi senator John Stennis was chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Stennis was a senator of the old school—literally. When he retired in 1989, after forty-one years, he was the chamber’s most senior member, and the second-longest-serving member in the Senate’s history. And so he did things a little differently than we’re used to today. Asked by a colleague to hold a fund-raiser with defense contractors, Stennis recoiled. “Would that be proper?” he asked. “I hold life and death over those companies. I don’t think it would be proper for me to take money from them.”

Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig recounts Stennis’s story in Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It (as does Robert G. Kaiser in the excellent So Damn Much Money*). It is a story, Lessig writes, that

reflects a change in norms. Stennis was no choirboy. But his hesitation reflected an understanding that I doubt a majority of Congress today would recognize. There were limits—even just thirty years ago—that seem as antiquated today as the wigs our Framers wore while drafting the Constitution.

Crucially, those limits were not always legal. Stennis wasn’t concerned that holding the fund-raiser would break the law. He was worried it wasn’t “proper.” He wasn’t worried about breaking the law. He was worried about breaking with the prevailing norms on Capitol Hill. This, Lessig says, is what has changed.


“Would that be proper?” is not, it seems,

a question that ever occurred to disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. His lawbreaking landed him in jail. His norm-breaking created a national scandal, and arguably lost Republicans control of Congress in 2006. But consider who it is that Abramoff mainly lobbied for, and what it is they actually wanted.

Abramoff lobbied for the Northern Mariana Islands, which sought exemption from certain labor rules for a variety of Native American tribes, which sought to continue a low-regulation, low-tax environment for their casinos, and for defense contractor Tyco, which wanted a tax cut. He was, in these efforts, successful. Arguably too successful. But these are hardly the life-and-death issues of American politics. In a sense, his tactics could only be so extreme, and his wins so decisive, because his issues were so small. What politicians do about the Northern Marianas moves few voters and receives few headlines. Had he been waging more high-profile wars, his hardball tactics would have come to light much sooner, and his career would likely have collapsed far earlier. As every child knows, it’s easier to break the rules when no one is watching.

Abramoff might be the most prominent example of the corruption that has infected our political system, but he is not the best example of it. He is not even a very good example of it. If anything, he’s a throwback to the lobbyists who led Washington more than a century ago. Until 1853, bribing members of Congress was legal, and lobbyists did so with impunity. After bribes were outlawed, lobbyists realized that the law permitted them to pay congressmen “consulting fees,” which they did until well into the twentieth century. Worse, the politicians took bribes with impunity. Early in the nineteenth century, while still a congressman with direct power over its continued survival, Daniel Webster wrote to the Bank of the United States with a blunt message: “If it be wished that my relation to the Bank be continued, it may be well to send me the usual retainers.” Abramoff would have had the check in the mail later that morning.

“The ordinary lobbyist today is a Boy Scout compared with the criminal of the nineteenth century,” Lessig writes.

The lobbyist today is ethical, and well educated. He or she works extremely hard to live within the letter of the law. More than ever before, most lobbyists are just well-paid policy wonks, expert in a field and able to advise and guide Congress well. Regulation is complex; regulators understand very little; the lobbyist is the essential link between what the regulator wants to do and how it can get done…. Most of it is decent, aboveboard, the sort of stuff we would hope happens inside the Beltway.

Abramoff’s memoir is, ultimately, a tale of small-time Washington corruption. It’s the story of how one lobbyist, working on behalf of the Choctaw Indians’ parochial interests, managed to offend a nation’s conscience. Lessig’s story, which focuses on lobbyists whose everyday practices are far less offensive and whose clients are, in the aggregate, far more important, is the story of how lobbying has managed to undermine a nation.

As Lessig writes, the typical lobbyist today

plays an important, even crucial, part in the political system. In addition to providing campaign contributions and employment prospects to outgoing elected officials and their staffs, he or she provides legislative expertise. Political scientists call this “the legislative subsidy” model of lobbying, and it poses a serious challenge to the view that lobbyists are little more than parasites.

The theory was first proposed by Richard Hall and Alan Deardorff in a 2006 paper entitled “Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy.” The paper was an attempt to solve a problem that, at first glance, should not have needed to be solved, because it should not have existed in the first place: Why is the behavior of lobbyists so hard to predict?

For instance: you would think that lobbyists would concentrate their financial power and well-honed connections on the politicians they need to persuade. But they don’t. They concentrate it on the politicians who are already most convinced of their positions. Abramoff was an example of this: he spent most of his time among conservative legislators who were already committed to fighting tax increases and new regulations.

Another puzzle: lobbying, at least in its bluntest form, doesn’t seem to work. For many Americans, lobbying is a form of bribery. A rich lobbyist goes to a corrupt congressman, money changes hands, and the lobbyist gets his vote while the congressman gets money for his campaign. Many researchers have tried to find systematic evidence of vote buying. Very few have succeeded. Lessig quotes research by Dan Clawson, Mark Weller, and Alan Neustadtl, which concluded, “Many critics of big money campaign finance seem to assume that a corporate donor summons a senator and says, ‘Senator, I want you to vote against raising the minimum wage. Here’s $5,000 to do so.’ This view, in its crude form, is simply wrong.” Lessig concurs:

If the only way that government power could be converted into campaign cash were by crossing the boundaries of criminal law, then there would be no book to write here. If the only possible “corruption” were the corruption regulated by bribery statutes, then I’d be the first to insist that ours is not a corrupt Congress.

Hall and Deardorf proposed an alternative: lobbying, they argue, is

a matching grant of costly policy information, political intelligence, and labor to the enterprises of strategically selected legislators. The proximate objective of this strategy is not to change legislators’ minds but to assist natural allies in achieving their own, coincident objectives. Their budget constraint thus relaxed by lobbyists’ assistance, already likeminded legislators act as if they were working on behalf of the group when in fact they are working on behalf of themselves.

In other words, lobbyists act like a volunteer, and highly skilled, army for politicians who already agree with them.

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