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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

MJ: Earmark reform has occurred through the years, as has lobbying reform. But you make it clear in your book that at every step, Cassidy and his colleagues in the industry have found new ways to stay ahead of the game.

RK: Yes. Interestingly, one of the most relevant recent reforms is that the sponsors of all earmarks have to be identified. Any line item that is in one of these bills now, you can see who sponsored it and so on. But as Cassidy would tell you, this is rarely a deterrent, because the member who sponsors the thing usually wants to be known. It's bacon that he's going to bring home and brag about.

So it is a reform, in that we can now write stories about how Congressman X received a lot of money from such and such an interest, and then that interest got an earmark sponsored by that same Congressman X. But he's not embarrassed by that, and it's not really a deterrent.

But I do think we can invent reforms that would have a big impact. One of the things I've talked about is having every official or every lobbyist, or both, report at the end of the day every day who they talked to and about what. In other words, if the administrative assistant to Congressman Jones had to say, "Here are the lobbyists I met with today and here's what we discussed," I think that would clean things up fairly dramatically.

MJ: One way lobbyists have adapted is that they have started raising money for politicians in huge amounts. They can't take politicians on trips or give them gifts, but politicians know who organizes their fundraisers. And that buys access down the road.

RK: It does. As the campaigns have become more and more expensive, finding that money becomes more and more important. The fact that you can't take Congressman X to a baseball game or a golf tournament may make life less easy for both the lobbyist and Congressman X, but what he really cares about is having the funds to fend off the next challenger. That's an area where lobbyists' role is untouched so far by any reform.

MJ: You write about the way in which the increasing need to raise money has changed the day-to-day activities of congressmen. Talk a little about that.

RK: This is one of the things I simply did not know about before doing the reporting for this book. The members now routinely spend a day, sometimes two days a week—all the time, all year around, election year or no election year—on the telephone calling potential donors, pleading for money. It's a demeaning enterprise, and I think it has an impact on weaning out a lot of people who might consider running for Congress [but don't] once they find out they have to do this every week for the rest of their lives.

MJ: Former Congressman Bob Livingston points out how because of fundraising demands and because of how Congress goes home on the weekends now, Congress simply does less work than before.

RK: One of the reasons why governance in this country got so bad over the last eight or ten years was the total absence of any oversight of the executive branch by Congress. And one reason for that was that Congress wasn't here. Really, since 1995, since Republicans got the control of both the House and the Senate, both bodies have been working three- or three-and-a-half-day weeks. And oversight is a hard job; it takes a lot of time and energy. And they just didn't want to devote themselves to it.

MJ: The pollster Peter Hart says in your book that today's political system creates "smaller people." Explain that.

RK: For me personally, this is perhaps the most important conclusion in my book. Congress no longer attracts independent-minded, big people who think for themselves, have their own personal worldview, fully informed and animated by their own intellects and their own reading. Instead you have a new class of people who want to go on television, who look good, who are willing to put up with that demeaning fundraising experience, and who really seem to be drawn to politics for the combative, gladiatorial aspects of the game, more than for any appetite to improve the governance of the United States.

From Jimmy Carter in 1976 through George W. Bush, we had candidates for president, the successful ones, all expressing somewhere between skepticism and outright negativity about government. And while Ronald Reagan was the archetype here—who said government isn't the solution, government is the problem—even Bill Clinton declared the end of big government and in other ways tried to signal that he wasn't an enthusiast for government. I think after 30 years of that, these guys have managed to put government into ill repute. They've given it a really bad name. Not surprisingly, government itself began to fail—I think because we got the government we deserved.

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