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The House (and Senate) of Ill Repute

Veteran Washington Post reporter Robert Kaiser on how lobbyists and lawmakers have given government a bad name.

| Thu Mar. 12, 2009 4:05 PM EDT

It's not clear if longtime Washington Post reporter Robert Kaiser holds a lower opinion of lobbyists or lawmakers. Based on a 27-part series that ran in the Post, his new book, So Damn Much Money, covers the 35-year history of the modern lobbying industry. But at the heart of Kaiser's book is not K Street. It's money—and the way that American governance has been subverted by it. While many lobbyists unabashedly pursue the goals of their corporate clients at the expense of the public interest, it's members of Congress—and their voracious appetites for perks and campaign cash—that keep the lobbyists in business. Because of the way the US political system has evolved, Kaiser's book reveals, elected representatives now spend less time actually making law and ensuring oversight than ever before—and more time raising funds, campaigning, and angling for post-Congress lobbying jobs. Earlier this week, Kaiser spoke to Mother Jones about how lawmakers and lobbyists have polluted politics.

Mother Jones: You structure the book around the career of one immensely successful lobbyist, Gerald Cassidy of Cassidy and Associates. Why did you make that decision?

Robert Kaiser: I'm a storyteller and it's always seemed to me that a good story has a good lead character. When I decided to do this project, I began looking around and I discovered the S-1 that Cassidy had filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission when he proposed to take [Cassidy and Associates] public in 1998. An S-1 is a very revealing document, when done properly, which is meant to explain to would-be investors in a company why they should want to invest in it, and why it has any value. For a reporter it was a gold mine. It was a road map.

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MJ: Perhaps the most important thing about Cassidy, other than the fact that he managed to make $100 million as a lobbyist over three decades, is that he invented earmarks.

RK: Yes, and that was not clear to me initially. I found out from his original partner. What they realized was that a good earmark was something that made everybody happy. I should define an earmark, the way I use the term. It is a direct appropriation from Congress to a particular project sponsored by a particular institution, and it's most often suggested by that institution. It is not part of a government program, and it's not something that an executive branch agency has recommended.

In the very first instance, it was just something that Tufts University wanted to do—have a nutritional center. But what they realized was that the congressman that represented Tufts, and the other congresspeople from the state, the lobbyist who is pushing the idea, and of course Tufts, the beneficiary, all have the same wonderful sense that if this thing goes through, they are helping themselves. The congressman was bringing home the bacon, the university had hit on a great new scheme for making money, and the lobbyist had found a new way to make money.

MJ: Was it the case back then, and is it still the case today, that when a lobbyist and a member of Congress work in conjunction to slip an earmark into a much larger bill, the other lawmakers who eventually vote on that bill don't know that it is even in there?

RK: More than that, in fact, particularly in the early years. Back then, there was only some general statement [in the bill] and then there was report language, as it's called. There was some paragraph in the report of the conference committee that wrote the final version of the bill that says, "The research laboratory in section 8, paragraph 7 is one that can only be built at Podunk University, and we expect the money to go to Podunk." For a long time, that was all you needed.

Later, this became more complicated and controversial, and you had to have a line item [mandating spending in the bill, instead of in report language]. But even when you had the line item in the bill, most members of Congress had no idea what was in these big appropriations bills. Nobody pays attention to earmarks that aren't their own. Except John McCain.

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