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Passing bills

A journalist investigates how lobbyists cash in on congressional influence

By John W. Dean
February 15, 2009
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Robert G. Kaiser's new book could not be timelier. President Obama wants to change the way business is conducted in Washington. Kaiser's "So Damn Much Money" provides a history of the ways and means of business in the nation's capital over the past three decades. It is not pretty, and to say it needs fixing is an understatement.

Kaiser, a Washington Post senior correspondent and editor, follows the rise of Cassidy & Associates, once the top and still a leading lobbying and government relations firm in Washington headed by Gerald S. J. Cassidy who, with several current and former associates, cooperated with the author. Readers may quickly get the impression, however, that Cassidy talked with Kaiser out of self-defense, for it is doubtful he would have portrayed himself as he emerges here: an overly ambitious, egomaniacal, hot-tempered, money-grubbing Washington hot shot.

Cassidy, "a tough street kid" from Brooklyn and Queens, "the product of a poor, violent family poisoned by alcohol," worked his way through college and law school with scholarships, then joined President Johnson's war on poverty by signing on with the South Florida Migrant Legal Services program in 1967. Another attorney from the program recalled Cassidy as "a big, insecure teddy bear."

While Cassidy was working for legal aid in 1969, Senator George McGovern's Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs traveled to Florida for hearings undertaken with the assistance of the legal aid lawyers, including Cassidy. "This was Cassidy's first real exposure to powerful people," Kaiser reports, and he "hit it off with McGovern." When Cassidy later traveled to Washington to look around, McGovern got him a job on the nutrition committee, and he never left. Or, as Kaiser describes it, Cassidy completed his self-invention in Washington.

"The story of Cassidy's rise to influence and riches is told . . . to try to illuminate how Washington has changed over the last three decades," Kaiser writes. Because Cassidy's example alone cannot tell the full tale, the author laces the account with historical context and insights explaining how lobbying exploded into Washington's biggest business as money became the be-all and end-all of electoral politics now dominated by campaign consultants, pollsters, media management, and permanent campaigning.

Cassidy is not the stereotypical glad-handing, back-slapping, cigar-chomping, whiskey-drinking influence peddler, rather an agile opportunist, an entrepreneur who realized serious money could be made in Washington by helping others get what they wanted from the federal government. His story is fascinating and well told.

Kaiser credits Cassidy with inventing a new way to do business in Washington, and building his firm by getting his clients endless millions in "earmarks." Members of Congress have been sending earmarked federal money to their constituencies since the 1930s, but Cassidy made it a highly lucrative business. Unlike K Street wheeler-dealer Jack Abramoff, who simply bribed lawmakers and their staffs, Cassidy lavishes Congress with campaign contributions for access and good will, which are legal, for there is no direct quid pro quo. This is not to say money is not corrupting, as Kaiser amply demonstrates what it has done in Washington.

Cassidy is aware of, sensitive to, and defensive about the problem. Accordingly, he sees his work in a larger context, and tells Kaiser that "as big or a bigger problem" than the tens of thousands of lobbyists who have come to roost in Washington (that is Kaiser's number and he says there is no way to get an accurate count) are the campaign consultants (read: Karl Rove types), and the way "they have spent so much money, and they demand so much money - it is one of the terrible things that's happened." Cassidy is correct. As the cost of campaigning has gone up - with each race more expensive than the last - the demand for money has followed with insidious and increasingly dire consequences.

"The ethics of Washington changed; old taboos fell away; things that once just weren't done, at least not openly, became commonplace," Kaiser finds of the last three decades. Today, members of the House and Senate routinely spend "a fourth or a third of their working hours soliciting those campaign contributions" that once would have "looked a great deal like bribes." Kaiser corroborates his findings with the observations of a host of seasoned and savvy Washington insiders. A few will suffice to make the point.

Former Nebraska Republican senator Chuck Hagel told Kaiser, "There's no shame anymore. . . . We've blown past the ethical standards; we now play on the edge of the legal standards." Hagel comes to believe that "money and its pursuit [have] paralyzed Washington. . . . Nothing truly important for the country [is] getting done."

Leon Panetta, a former member of Congress, chief of staff in the Clinton White House, and Obama's newly confirmed CIA director, says that "legalized bribery has become part of the culture." Members of Congress "rarely legislate; they basically follow the money. . . . They're spending more and more time dialing for dollars." Panetta laments the quality of people now running for Congress, echoing the conclusion reached by Hagel and other old hands: "It's all about winning, it's not about governing anymore."

Like a few others, the perceptive Cassidy sees "a day of reckoning coming." He realizes that if Americans knew what was happening, they would demand it. Until that day, however, it is all but certain that Cassidy and others will continue to milk the system for all it is worth, because, in the words of another great Washington fixer, Robert Strauss, there's "just so damn much money in it."

John W. Dean was White House counsel to President Nixon and is the author of 10 books, including "Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches."

SO DAMN MUCH MONEY: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government By Robert G. Kaiser

Knopf, 398 pp., $27.95

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