Hammering K Street
Matthew Continetti vs. "The Republican Machine."


Well, there go Matt Continetti’s free lunches on K Street.

Former National Review intern, current Weekly Standard reporter Matthew Continetti is author of the new book The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine, released today from Doubleday. He recently talked to NRO editor Kathryn Lopez about the book, money and politics, and the GOP.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Are lobbyists really a “danger to our democracy?”

Matthew Continetti: That depends on how much influence we allow lobbyists to have on public-policy decisions, which should be the domain of elected officials, who are accountable to the people. No one elects lobbyists, who are accountable only to their clients. A lobbyist is anyone who has contact with elected officials in behalf of a third party. There is a place for that sort of person, who is typically extremely well compensated for his efforts, in the political arena.

Certainly the Founders gave us an interest-based, pluralist, constitutional regime in which various interests squabble over political questions. And, as many point out, a lobbyist, or someone who “petitions” the government for “redress of grievances,” is one of three professions that the Bill of Rights names and protects (the other two are clergymen and journalists).

But what happens when lobbyists, rather than urging a specific policy, get to write the policy themselves? What happens when lobbyists ply susceptible lawmakers with expensive dinners, paid junkets, and tickets to sporting events and concerts? What happens when lobbyists use their influence to warp public debate, so that the polity ends up devoting time and energy to what should probably have been a trivial issue? And what happens when the lobbyists themselves are so consumed by greed that they lose sight of, and respect for, the law?

Those are the concerns that I discuss in The K Street Gang. And, I would add, there is another way in which lobbyists, and the practice of lobbying, can possibly erode our democratic culture. Many lobbyists place the private over the public interest and the economic interests of a client over the national interests of the American people. This contributes to the degradation of public-spiritedness and national identity, and should trouble anyone concerned about American politics and American civic life.

Lopez: Does President Bush have a contingency plan to keep them out of Iraq? (!)

Continetti: Probably not. Though I think we should remember that, thanks to Bush’s actions, the possibility of lobbying–which is to say, the possibility of interest-based politics–now exists in Iraq, where it did not exist before.

Lopez: Seriously, though, isn’t “government by lobbyist” a little over the top?

Continetti: Not when lobbyists draft the laws, design the earmarks, recruit from congressional staffs, recruit from the ranks of former legislators themselves, and generally bridge the gap between K Street and the Capitol. And not when some of our elected officials were once lobbyists themselves.

Lopez: The GOP is clearly no model majority. But even so, does Howard Dean throw stones with his “culture of corruption” mantra a little too quickly?

Continetti: Dean is playing smart politics. He sees that the Republican majority is down, and so he and the other Democratic leaders pile on, working the issues to their advantage, though not necessarily to the country’s.

So, on the one hand, the Democrats damage the Bush administration’s credibility on the war and label the president incompetent (a strategy that seems to be working), while on the other they draw as much attention as they can to the Republican congressional scandals. I’m not sure how effective this latter tact has been–most voters see Washington as hopelessly corrupt anyway, and think that that corruption is bipartisan.

And corruption can be bipartisan. For example, there is an ongoing bribery investigation into Rep. William Jefferson, a Democrat from Louisiana. In the 1980s and early 1990s, of course, Republicans railed against the corruption of the then-dominant Democrats.

In The K Street Gang, I examine the activities of a group of legislators and their staffs, including Rep. Tom DeLay, Rep. Bob Ney, Sen. Conrad Burns, and a few others. Together, they are certainly not a majority of Republican legislators. So the “culture of corruption” may be a slight exaggeration. If so, it is an exaggeration that has some degree of resonance with the American people.

Lopez: Is K Street something of an easy scapegoat for some Beltwayers letting power corrupt them?

Continetti: I haven’t heard any of the individuals implicated in the Abramoff scandal–as I write, Abramoff, Michael Scanlon, Adam Kidan, and Tony Rudy have all pleaded guilty–blame their actions on where they worked (K Street) or what they did for a living (lobbying).

The K Street Gang, however, asks a simple question: More than a decade after the Republican Revolution, have the Republicans changed Washington, or has Washington changed the Republicans? I think the latter is closer to the truth. For years, the GOP attacked big government and the Washington establishment . . . only to discover that, once they were in power and had made their own counterestablishment, that Washington might not be so bad after all. The book traces the genealogy of that contradiction, and how it is reflected in the lives of Jack Abramoff and others.

Lopez: If you don’t like the Mariana Islands, Matt, don’t go there. Are they an easy scapegoat for anti-Washington populists too?

Continetti: There are less than 60,000 people who live in the Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands, an archipelago in the Pacific that is also a U.S. territory. Most of those people are imported workers from throughout Asia, who work in the garment factories that populate the main island, Saipan. The owner of most of those factories, Willie Tan, was the recipient of the largest labor fine in U.S. history. He was also one of Jack Abramoff’s first clients. Abramoff strenuously worked to prevent U.S. legislators from extending U.S. wage, immigration, and other labor laws to the Marianas. As part of his efforts, he persuaded numerous conservatives that the commonwealth was a free-market paradise. What these conservatives ignored is that the Marianas are actually a welfare dependency case–the United States taxpayers send hundreds of millions of dollars there every year.

Lopez: Abramoff and Mobutu Sese Seko? How much of your book is really just an Internet hoax?

Continetti: In 1995, an ally of the Zairian dictator paid Republican lobbyists to help Mobutu gain entry into the United States. For his part, Abramoff claimed to be working pro bono. The effort was unsuccessful.

But, over the years, Abramoff lobbied in behalf of governments and clients who were shady at best. These included the governments of Pakistan, Gabon, Malaysia, and Russian oil interests with ties to Soviet Intelligence. Abramoff’s business partner in the fraudulent purchase of the SunCruz casino company, Adam Kidan, had a two-decade-long relationship with an associate of the Gambino crime family. There is a longstanding willingness on the part of the K Street Conservatives to overlook the ethical backgrounds of their clients and friends.

Lopez: Is it a coincidence that Abramoff took advantage of Indian tribes? Is there some political naiveté there that’s specific to them?

Continetti: The Indian tribes that operate casinos are rich. And in 2001, Abramoff, who was in horrible debt after the SunCruz deal failed to pay off immediately, needed money. The Indian casino tribes were also his clients. Since they had been willing to pay millions in the past, the logic went, why wouldn’t they pay even more to Michael Scanlon, Abramoff’s partner in crime?

I would not say that the tribes are politically naive. I would say that their businesses and governments–indeed their existence–are a function of the whims of the United States government. Gambling in America, remember, is a government program. Abramoff promised the tribes he could work the system to their advantage. He ended up working it to his own.

Lopez: For the non-Beltway layman, in brief, what is the K Street Project?

Continetti: The K Street Project was the effort, beginning in 1989, to link Republican lobbyists to Capitol Hill, and move the lobbying industry–Washington’s growth industry, along with government–in a Republican direction. The goal was parity–for every Democrat hired at a lobbying firm, a Republican should be hired as well. And through a variety of tactics–meetings, lists, and what some might call intimidation–the project has proved a success.

Lopez: What is K-Street Conservatism? Anything like Crunchy Conservatism?

Continetti: Nothing like Crunchy Conservatism, I’m afraid. K Street Conservatism is rhetorical conservatism coupled with self-dealing. The first tenet is that all interests are ideological interests. The second tenet is that politics is the science of manipulating “grassroots” voters to achieve a clients’ ends. In short, it is conservatism that is short on principle and high on profits.

Lopez: As far as the K Street Project goes: Doesn’t some organized Hill-K Street communication make sense?

Continetti:Sure it does. But things have gone astray. Tying Republicans closer to the lobbying industry was supposed to be a means. The end was a more effective Republican majority. But the means became an end in itself. And the result–an ineffective Republican majority–can be seen everywhere today.

Lopez: Lawyers and unions give a bulk of their political money to Dems and, now, businesses give lion’s share to the GOP–isn’t there a certain logic to that?

Continetti: Sure there is. As long as money flows to views–as long as contributors give to politicians who reflect their outlook–there’s no problem. The problem is when views flow to money–when principles are thrown aside at the first sign of profit; when lawmakers bend the rules in exchange for lavish junkets. That’s what The K Street Gang is about.

Lopez: Isn’t it true that Abramoff hid what he was up to from everyone–his law-firm bosses, his clients, sometimes his cohorts (you even have an example of Tony Rudy not knowing what Abramoff was up to)–so isn’t it logical that members of Congress were also in the dark?

In other words, is it possible that DeLay didn’t know what his own staffer was up to?

Continetti:Almost anything is possible.

Lopez: Do you have anything good to say about Tom DeLay?

Continetti: Tom DeLay was one of the most effective, feared, and respected members of Congress in American history. Everything he did, he did because he felt it would help conservatives and the Republican majority.

Lopez: Is there such a thing as a good lobbyist in your worldview?

Continetti: Any lobbyist who lives ethically is a good lobbyist.

Lopez: Will the College Republicans ever be the same post Abramoff (he was a chairman)?

Continetti: The College Republicans is an effective training ground for future conservative leaders. It continues, however, to be dogged by scandals. Republicans should hope that the next generation of CR leadership attempts to correct the organization’s course as best as it can.

Lopez: Doesn’t referring people to a Jim Carville/Paul Begala book, as you do in your book, give you the chills?

Continetti: Not really. I mention the Carville-Begala book because they have an intriguing campaign-finance-reform idea. To paraphrase, they want to abolish the limits on campaign donations, coupled with improved disclosure of donors. If only more Democrats were for less regulation of politics by politicians.

Lopez: What reform plan seems the most reasonable to you and most likely to pass?

Continetti: The Senate bill includes increased disclosure of lobbying contacts and clients. It addresses the question of earmarks. Congress will probably pass some type of reform before the fall, in order to inoculate members from the “do-nothing” charge. But it is far from certain that any reform will have the desired effect.

It pays to recall, too, that the crimes to which Abramoff and friends have so far pleaded guilty are already illegal.

Lopez: You come at The K Street Gang as a smart, young, idealistic conservative. What’s your practical advice to those younger than you turned off by the Abramoff stuff–maybe further turned off to a career in politics/in the Beltway–because of your book?

Continetti: I hope that they decide to come to Washington after all and work to reform American politics and culture. I hope that they retain their sense of principle, but also not allow ideology to blind them to wrongdoing, or to bad actors, or to the grime of everyday political life. And I hope that they resist the temptations Washington offers talented young people–good food, good drink, the illusion of power, some small modicum of fame–which, by making someone comfortable, might also set them in their ways and curb their ambition to do good.