So Damn Much Money by Robert G. Kaiser
Lobbyists and Tigers and Bears—Oh My
So Damn Much Money:
The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government
by Robert G. Kaiser
Knopf. 416 pp. $27.95
A sage politician by the name of Jesse Unruh once observed that “money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Robert G. Kaiser believes the nation’s capital is drowning in it. His book, So Damn Much Money: the Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, is an account of how Washington politics has changed since the 1970’s as seen through the lens of one of the largest and most successful lobbying firms, Cassidy & Associates. It is not, he says, “a pretty tale.”
According to Kaiser, a veteran reporter and editor at the Washington Post, excess money and a “new class” of lobbyists have together caused “ethical rot in the nation’s capital” and are the source of a litany of government’s failings. The need to raise vast sums of campaign contributions dissuades talented citizens from running for office, forces those who do to avoid discussing real problems on the stump, and diverts their attention from such problems once elected. Money has obliterated the distinction between electioneering and governing; turned campaigns into a blood-sport of negative advertisements that alienate voters; and destroyed public trust in government. Finally, the explosion of “earmarks”—congressional appropriations for specific projects that are the particular province of lobbying efforts—has undermined the public interest.
To make this sweeping case, Kaiser traces the life of Gerald S.J. Cassidy and the lobbying firm he co-founded. A tough Irish kid from Queens, Cassidy earned his spurs in government first on Senator George McGovern’s “hunger” committee (the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs) and then on his 1972 presidential campaign. In 1975, Cassidy and Kenneth Schlossberg founded Schlossberg, Cassidy & Associates. They linked supplicants for government assistance to powerful members of Congress and strategically placed bureaucrats. The business model was, according to Kaiser, “to put a toll booth on a very lucrative highway.”
Given Schlossberg’s and Cassidy’s backgrounds and connections, their early clients consisted of food producers that wanted to participate in the federally funded school-lunch program and other initiatives. But the real breakthrough came with Tufts University. Using connections with the Massachusetts congressional delegation, including then-speaker of the House Tip O’Neil, the firm successfully lobbied for an earmark through which Congress funded the building and development of a $30 million nutrition-research center at Tufts. Colleges, universities, and hospitals seeking such earmarks for infrastructure and other projects soon became the outfit’s staple clients, and it was not long before the firm had enlisted a long list of corporate clients as well.
Kaiser details how Cassidy & Associates (Schlossberg was eventually forced out) identified and solicited clients; hired ex-members of Congress or congressional staffers with connections on Capitol Hill; made lavish campaign contributions to certain legislators; and briefly brought on board the notorious Jack Abramoff shortly before his fall into disgrace and eventual conviction on the charge of fraud. Kaiser also recounts some of the firm’s greatest successes: preventing Congress from defunding the Sea Wolf submarine (a massive arms purchase) and influencing U.S.-China relations by helping to arrange for Taiwan’s president to speak at Cornell University.
In Kaiser’s telling, five things account for the success of Cassidy & Associates. First, members of Congress are always eager to “bring home the bacon” to please the voters that elect them. Second, legislators became dependent on lobbyists to help them raise campaign cash. Third, the size of the earmarks, at least initially, was quite large, which meant that clients were willing to pay big retainer fees. Fourth, the increased size and scope of American government led to a proliferation of groups seeking to protect or advance their interests in Washington. Finally, Cassidy himself proved to be a hard-charging operator willing to go the extra mile for his clients.
Kaiser finds both the way Cassidy became wealthy and the extent of his wealth deplorable. But in fact, the salary Cassidy has paid himself for most of his career is around what some university presidents make and well below that of what many business executives or corporate lawyers earn. Nor does Kaiser show that the benefits secured by Cassidy’s clients are all that remarkable. The number of earmarks has indeed grown—in 2005 there were 13,492 earmarks costing nearly $19 billion—but the price tag remains less than one percent of the federal budget. Reform requiring greater transparency in the earmarking process is probably sufficient to limit what is actually a rather small problem.
Lobbyists and the interests they represent do not exercise nearly as much influence as Kaiser suggests. Hiring the right lobbyist can get an institution access to powerful politicians. Yet there are so many groups in Washington that many of those who engage lobbyists are simply trying to figure out what is going on. It may also be the case that the multiplicity of interests exerts conflicting pressures on members of Congress such that they cancel one another out, leaving legislators freer than they have ever been to vote on the basis of their own convictions. Nor does Kaiser prove that political outcomes are consistently biased in one direction, say, in favor of business. Many kinds of groups have found avenues for getting their way in Washington, sometimes at the expense of business, as is the case with the lobbying by environmentalists.
As for the cost of running for office, it has indeed gone up sharply and the number of political-action committees (PAC’s) that help fund campaigns has grown. Yet neither of these developments is particularly insidious. Campaigns need more money not because they use it to buy off voters but because television advertising has become so costly. Kaiser does not like the fact that many political ads are negative in tone, but the evidence is ambiguous on their effect. The presumption that attack advertising has driven voters into a state of apathy is belied by the results of the three most recent national elections, in which turnout numbers successively reached new heights. In any case, a cursory glance at the historical record reveals that American campaigns have always been rough-and-tumble. In 1800, one Federalist said that if Thomas Jefferson won the election, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced . . . and the nation [made] black with crimes.” In the 1864 campaign, Lincoln was called a buffoon, a monster, and a butcher.
Rather than being nefarious, PAC’s came into existence after Congress first began to regulate campaign financing in 1974. These organizations made the system more transparent and they are strictly limited in the amount that they can give to a candidate in any election cycle. Nor is there any systematic evidence that PAC contributions affect how members of Congress act. On most issues, the voting records of elected representatives are most clearly explained by the character of their district and their own ideological proclivities. In any case, most of the money for congressional campaigns still comes from individual donors. The total spending on races for federal office in 2004 was roughly $4 billion. That figure appears shockingly large, but not when one considers that Walmart spent the same sum on advertising during the same period. Is $4 or $5 billion really too much for candidates and political parties to spend in an effort to inform and mobilize 220 million potential voters for democratic elections in which politicians are being engaged to manage a $3 trillion federal government that is part of a $14 trillion economy?
After 350 pages of grumbling and finger-pointing, Kaiser skips any discussion of serious reform options and instead makes a half-hearted plea for public financing of campaigns. Such a goal is politically unrealistic; by huge margins, voters oppose being taxed for this purpose. It also would represent a threat to free speech, among dozens of other unintended consequences. It is far more likely that we will, rather, muddle through with the current system, and make adjustments at the margins that are just as liable to make things worse as improve them. Efforts to rid the system of its Gerry Cassidys are more likely to produce other Gerry Cassidys who are richer, more powerful, and less ethical. No matter; the republic will endure.