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So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government Paperback – February 9, 2010
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The startling story of the monumental growth of lobbying in Washington, D.C., and how it undermines effective government and pollutes our politics.
A true insider, Robert G. Kaiser has monitored American politics for The Washington Post for nearly half a century. In this sometimes shocking and always riveting book, he explains how and why, over the last four decades, Washington became a dysfunctional capital. At the heart of his story is money--money made by special interests using campaign contributions and lobbyists to influence government decisions, and money demanded by congressional candidates to pay for their increasingly expensive campaigns, which can cost a staggering sum. In 1974, the average winning campaign for the Senate cost $437,000; by 2006, that number had grown to $7.92 million. The cost of winning House campaigns grew comparably: $56,500 in 1974, $1.3 million in 2006.
Politicians’ need for money and the willingness, even eagerness, of special interests and lobbyists to provide it explain much of what has gone wrong in Washington. They have created a mutually beneficial, mutually reinforcing relationship between special interests and elected representatives, and they have created a new class in Washington, wealthy lobbyists whose careers often begin in public service. Kaiser shows us how behavior by public officials that was once considered corrupt or improper became commonplace, how special interests became the principal funders of elections, and how our biggest national problems--health care, global warming, and the looming crises of Medicare and Social Security, among others--have been ignored as a result.
Kaiser illuminates this progression through the saga of Gerald S. J. Cassidy, a Jay Gatsby for modern Washington. Cassidy came to Washington in 1969 as an idealistic young lawyer determined to help feed the hungry. Over the course of thirty years, he built one of the city’s largest and most profitable lobbying firms and accumulated a personal fortune of more than $100 million. Cassidy’s story provides an unprecedented view of lobbying from within the belly of the beast.
A timely and tremendously important book that finally explains how Washington really works today, and why it works so badly.
Amazon Exclusive: An Essay by Robert G. Kaiser
Last fall the House of Representatives set off a sudden collapse of the stock market by voting against the first version of the “bailout” legislation that had been hurriedly written to try to stabilize American banks and other financial institutions. Supporters of the bailout scrambled to change the legislation in ways that would win support for it from a majority of Congressmen. In a matter of days new provisions were added: extension of an excise-tax rebate for makers of Puerto Rican rum (cost to the Treasury, $192 million); extension of a special tax break for the owners of stock car racing tracks (cost, $100 million); a tax break for makers of movies within the borders of the United States (cost over ten years, $478 million) and more. These “sweeteners”--a revealing bit of Washington jargon--did the trick. Days after rejecting the $750 billion bailout, the House approved it.
This dreary sequence was evidence of a fact that careful students of Washington’s ways had realized for some time: In the first decade of the new millennium, the government of the United States was broken. It had taken three decades to create the mess. Democrats and Republicans had collaborated in its creation, and as that story of the sweetening of the bailout bill makes clear, money was at the heart of the problem.
Those sweeteners were payoffs of a kind--spending proposals that would allow the politicians promoting them to boast of their own influence in Washington, hoping to win votes in the process. Spending on the favored projects of Senators and Congressmen had grown exponentially since Republicans took over congress in 1994 and decided that they could defend their majorities if their members could bring home a lot of bacon. Hence the explosion of the legislative provisions called “earmarks” that John McCain assailed in his presidential campaign.
But money became a dominant factor in more insidious ways. Over the 30 years, opinion polls, focus groups and television commercials became the most effective tools to win elections, and all of them were expensive. So were the consultants whom candidates hired to make their commercials, shape their campaigns, even choose the issues they would run on. To win a politician needed a lot of money. Money could elect someone to office who never addressed important matters that affect ordinary Americans’ lives. Money elects candidates who have no real philosophy of governance nor a coherent view of the world. The result has been unreal politics--candidates winning or losing office on the basis of their positions on social issues essentially unrelated to governance, for example.
Not addressing problems has become easy in a political environment distorted by money. In these three decades when money became so important in Washington, Congress lost much of its effectiveness as a governing institution. Running for reelection became more important than running the country, or keeping an eye on the exercise of executive power--the roles the Founders envisioned for the House and Senate. The quality of governance in the United States had declined palpably in these years.
(Photo © Lucian Perkins)--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
The life story of Washington lobbyist Gerald Cassidy is used to illuminate how Washington has changed over the past three decades in this bleak but informative book. Kaiser, an associate editor at the Washington Post, traces the ascendance of Cassidy, from his rough childhood in the 1950s to the incorporation of his lobbying firm, a pioneer in winning congressional earmarks for its clients, which Cassidy cofounded with Kenneth Schlossberg in 1975. The relationship between the two partners was dissolved in 1984, but Cassidy continued to build what became one of the most powerful and wealthy firms in the industry before it slipped from its vanguard status in the last few years. The author also lays out a larger history of influence peddling in federal politics, stretching back to the Civil War era, and examines the evolution of today's permanent campaigns. The author's gestures to a broader historical narrative—often in alternating chapters—sometimes distract from his nuanced examination of the rise and decline of Cassidy and Associates, but Kaiser manages to vividly elaborate the firm's history while placing it in the context of a degenerating political culture. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Democratic Political Consultant
I found the detailed reporting on Gerald Cassidy and the company he founded the best part of this solid effort by a veteran Washington Post reporter. (Who, by the way, found it possible to fit the Washington Post's name in the first paragraph of each of the first two chapters of this book.)
Mr. Kaiser is accurate in laying out the various money raising schemes now afoot in Washington, D.C., such as those that evolved out of the growth of the ear-marking process.
Unfortunately, Mr. Kaiser projects a liberal moralizing tone that takes away from the narrative. In general, Democrats have noble aims in coming to Congress but often become corrupt due to the need to raise campaign money. Meanwhile, Republicans have ignoble aims and usually become corrupt for the same reason. The solution, public financing of elections and other unlikely remedies peddled by Common Cause.
One small point, the 116 Club, contrary to the author's view (p. 15), while indeed "scruffy" is not without some charm.
Kaiser picks one of the town's larger (once the largest) lobbying firms, Cassidy and Associates, to make his point. Kaiser describes how the firm basically invented the congressional earmark and proceeded to make millions of dollars from this innovation. He later describes how money has become increasingly important in the political process, and how lobbyist campaign contributions have helped corrupt that process.
The only problem with this argument is that, regardless of how true it may be, Kaiser unintentionally makes a pretty compelling case that the opposite is true -- that the supposed influence of Washington lobbyists is not really that high. First, as Kaiser points out, earmarks constitute a tiny portion of the overall federal budget. While their existence may help politicians get elected, and may grease the skids for bigger ticket items, none of this suggests a particularly influential role for the lobbyists themselves. If all you are influencing is how Congress is spending a tiny fraction of the budget (and even that is arguable, given the role appropriators and congressional leaders play in the earmarking process), your influence over policy making is pretty small.
Kaiser does go on to describe the role of the Cassidy firm in three non-earmark situations, but they only underline how little influence the firm had. The first involved convincing regulators that cranberry juice should be labeled 100% juice (snore). A second involved helping the democratically elected leader of Taiwan get a speaking engagement in the United States when the State Department was worried that allowing it would upset mainland China. But then Kaiser goes on to show why this wasn't particularly hard to do. And finally, Kaiser describes the role of the firm in helping to get the Seawolf submarine funded, but once again shows that the real drivers behind the policy were members of the Senate who were horse trading with one another and who couldn't even remember what the Cassidy firm had done on the issue.
If anything, each of these examples suggested that the influence of these lobbyists was trivial. Later in the book, Kaiser describes how Cassidy was reaching a point where they suffered pretty high client turnover. The unstated assumption here must be that at least some of them were unsatisfied customers who were not particularly impressed with the results they were getting for their high monthly retainer fees. Even the attempts of Cassidy to add complementary additional services, such as PR, mostly turned out to be a bust.
So, if the influence of these DC lobbyists is overstated, what about their supposed corrupting influence on the political process through fundraising and political donations? Kaiser points out that the total cost of federal campaigns has skyrocketed in recent years, and that elected officials must spend countless hours on the phone raising money for their campaigns. But the share of these funds raised by Cassidy and similar firms is tiny. Kaiser quotes lobbyists who viewed their contributions as more like paying tribute because it was expected. Kaiser also notes that the lobbyists were on the receiving end of these fundraising requests, they did not initiate them. The real story here was not one of lobbyists corrupting some otherwise honest policymakers, but one of elected officials hitting up lobbyists through a form of legalized extortion.
Kaiser then points out a series of reforms enacted in recent years to further reduce the ability of lobbyists to corrupt the process, including gift bans, cooling off periods that make congressional staff and others wishing to enter the profession wait a year or more before they can lobby, and limits on campaign contributions.
All of the above suggests that the real story behind Kaiser's book is how surprisingly little influence these lobbying firms have, and how most of the money they make is at the expense of lightweight business executives who don't really know the political process and pony up big bucks to cover their behinds.
The subtitle of Kaiser's book is: "The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government." Based on what is actually in the book, though, a more accurate subtitle might have been: "How Dumb Business Executives Are Getting Scammed by High Rolling DC Lobbyists and Not Accomplishing Very Much."
But that might not have sold as many books.