Why congressmen envy lobbyists, Part 2.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
July 2 2003 7:19 PM

Why Congressmen Want To Be Lobbyists, Part 2

Blame Nixon, Gingrich and Nader.

When John Monagan, a Democrat who represented Waterbury, Conn., in the House of Representatives, lost his seat in 1972, he became a lobbyist. It wasn't really what he wanted. He'd looked into becoming a lecturer at Dartmouth or Yale, but they wouldn't have him. Reviving his law practice lacked appeal because, he writes in his memoir, A Pleasant Institution, "I would have had to start at the beginning … writing contracts and drawing warranty deeds and mortgages and developing business." His wife and children, having lived in and around Washington for 13 years, weren't keen to move. So, he opened a Washington office for a New York law firm.

Monagan didn't much like the work. Clients, he felt, had "an unreal picture of how the Congress worked and were prey to some who made outlandish claims to power and influence which were without foundation." Although he had plenty of House connections himself, "it was not easy for me to dramatize them." Overall,

I did not relish the demands of the lobbying process—the continual attendance, the buttering-up, the extended and unpredictable hours of activity. … My committees had not been those such as Ways and Means and Commerce where "business was done" and although [while in Congress] I had been familiar with and cooperative with business representatives, I had not tried to develop intimate associations which could be turned into paying connections. At length, after eight years, I determined to call it a day. …

Monagan's sensibility was more rarified than that of his peers—he went on to write a biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes and carried on a lengthy correspondence with the novelist Anthony Powell—but his melancholy about settling into a lobbying job is nonetheless representative of a mindset that prevailed on Capitol Hill through most of the last century. Public service as a sitting member of Congress was ennobling. Trading influence as a lobbyist for moneyed interests, on the other hand, was a little bit demeaning.

How old-fashioned it all sounds today! As Chatterbox noted Monday, Reps. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Mary Bono, R-Calif., brazenly serenaded recording-industry lobbyist Hilary Rosen last week with a plea for her job. The "hire-us" rap song that Tauzin and Bono recorded for Rosen's going-away party ("You still don't think we're the ones for the job?/ Yo, we're politicians. We were born to hobnob") was very clearly a joke. But, as Monagan pointed out to Chatterbox, it's not the sort of joke that House members from his era would likely have made.

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And how much of a joke was it, anyway? Bono has been less than Shermanesque in denying that she wants to succeed Rosen. "I am not actively seeking the job," Bono assured Variety after her spokeswoman described the music-lobbying gig as Bono's "ideal job." (Bono is the widow of pop-star-turned-congressman Sonny Bono, and she recently co-founded the House Intellectual Property Promotion and Piracy Prevention Caucus. For Bono, "intellectual property" is no abstraction since she gets paid every time a disc jockey spins "I Got You, Babe.") Tauzin, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce committee, is more firm in denying his rumored desire, which is to succeed Jack Valenti as president of the Motion Picture Association of America. But Variety reported yesterday that Tauzin remains Hollywood's top choice. If Tauzin really didn't want the job, wouldn't he make Valenti take his name out of the running?

That two relatively young members of Congress facing no serious threat of electoral defeat would envy the life of a lobbyist represents a massive paradigm shift in Washington's status hierarchy. Having long ago reconciled themselves to being lobbyists' financial inferiors, House members now find themselves lobbyists' social inferiors. How could this perversion of the natural order come to pass? Blame it on three people: Richard Nixon, Newt Gingrich, and Ralph Nader.

Nixon was at the center of the Watergate scandal, one of whose ramifications was 1974's Federal Election Campaign Act. This placed limits on political contributions and established the Federal Election Commission, which collects and maintains data on campaign receipts and outlays. The 1974 law clearly made national elections, which until then had often operated on a cash basis, less corrupt, and it minimized the amount of individual influence a fat cat could buy. But it also made the lives of House members more unpleasant by complicating the way they collect political contributions.

Previously, a representative could rely on a few wealthy patrons to bankroll his campaigns. Lyndon Johnson, for instance, entered Congress as the protégé of George and Herman Brown, who directed Johnson to secure federal contracts for their construction firm, Brown and Root. Once limits were imposed on contributions by individuals and political action committees, it became harder for one donor to "own" a representative the way the Browns had owned Johnson. But because each contribution was now smaller, House members had to devote more and more of their time to raising money. Today, fund-raising is a grind for all elected officials in Washington, but it's an especially dreary treadmill for representatives because they must run every two years.

At the same time that campaign reform made being a congressman less enjoyable on a daily basis, it expanded vastly the power of Washington's lobbyists. No longer mere messenger boys for individual wealthy patrons, they became powers unto themselves as House members (and other Washington politicians) subcontracted to them the business of raising money. Increasingly, lobbyists came to represent entire industries rather than individual companies. The most successful lobbyists extended their fund-raising reach beyond those they represented and solicited contributions from the larger community of prominent wealthy people. In addition to rendering themselves more valuable financially, this mingling with the nation's elites raised the lobbyists' social status. By banning previously unrestricted "soft money" contributions to the national parties, last year's McCain-Feingold campaign finance law will further accelerate this trend.

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