Pols Tripping All Over Themselves on Way to Bank

Washington Matters

Pols Tripping All Over Themselves on Way to Bank

Those loud noises you're hearing from Washington? They're often the sound of politicians and consultants swooshing through the revolving door between the public and private sectors -- or the occasional splat they make when a conflict of interest is so particularly grotesque that it trips them up. Pollster Mark Penn, forced to quit Hillary Clinton's campaign after meeting with a client whose position on a political issue was diametrically opposed to hers, is just the most recent example. 

Penn ran into trouble by meeting with a member of the government of Columbia-- a client of Penn's public relations firm -- about a trade pact that Clinton opposed. Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson is resigning because of accusations that he steered federal contracts to friends. Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md., got beat in a March primary and rushed through the revolving door with particular haste, saddling voters with the cost of a special election to fill about six months of his term. But Wynn can keep rubbing shoulders with those he can eventually lobby since he won't actually leave office until June. Dethroned Senate GOP leader Trent Lott of Mississippi persuaded his Republican colleagues to give him another crack at leadership last year, only to bail out in December to form a lobbying firm with former Democratic Senator John Breaux of Louisiana, just before a new law took effect doubling to two years the amount of time a former lawmaker is barred from directly lobbying current ones.

Politicians make decent money. Good political consultants can do even better. But neither job comes close to the haul that can be made by advising or lobbying for industries, individual companies, wealthy non-profits, states, cities or even foreign governments that want something from Washington. The result is politicians sprinting for K St. the second they're defeated for reelection or decide they've had enough of public service. In fact, many congressional veterans such as former Sen. Lott, and his partner in a spanking new lobbying outfit, former Sen.

Breaux, cite money as a reason for leaving, despite annual salaries for rank and file House and Senate members that are a whisker away from $170,000 a year and the plush retirement benefits they get to take with them.

Political consultants, who usually pledge allegiance to one party or another or at least a broad ideology, sometimes find things a little lean between elections. But unlike lawmakers and congressional aides, they don't have to worry about time limits that restrict lobbying activities, so they parlay their contacts and expertise into a useful -- and expensive -- service of helping clients find their way through the Washington labyrinth in which laws and exceptions to laws are written and interpreted.

The perceived need for such guidance and representation has led to a semi-permanent class of powerbrokers. As tempting as it is, it would be simplistic, overly cynical and wrong to simply write this phenomenon off as a self-perpetuating cycle of greed. Anyone and everyone has a right to try to get heard by lawmakers and anyone has a right to make money by trying to make sure the right lawmakers hear the best case possible for any particular cause or concern. At the same time, it would be just as naive to not think that this inner-circle of professional deal-makers, friends and policymakers don't legally accommodate one another when they can because they all know each other and, more importantly, know where the levers of power are and how to use them.

There's no easy way out of this mess. I have covered Washington for well over 25 years and over that period of time have seen this system expand and metastasize by such geometric proportions that it is fully and completely entrenched. Two of the three major party candidates for president, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, have made fighting the influence of special interests a signature of their campaigns. And each have somewhat tainted their credibility. McCain acknowledges that many lobbyists are close friends and Obama acknowledged terrible judgment in accepting help from a financial contributor -- now on trial for unrelated corruption charges -- that gave him a sweet deal on a home and large backyard.

Journalists are also guilty, not out of some deliberate conspiracy of silence and blindness by media magnates, but because the influence industry has become such an innate part of the process of writing laws and regulations that only the most outrageous and obvious acts of outright corruption or blatantly unfair results draw their attention.

The system has not just spawned a huge industry, but it also has made the political process cowardly and timid. Politicians are so fearful of crossing one interest group or another by demanding that it sacrifice something, long-standing problems go unaddressed. That, perhaps, is the biggest cause of Washington gridlock. And barring an uprising from voters willing to accept some sacrifice themselves, it is unlikely to change until those problems begin to mutate into crises that are too urgent to ignore and too high-profile to be easily manipulated by interest groups and hired guns.