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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 5:05 PM EDT

MJ: Can you talk about how the perception of the revolving door has changed, starting with Jim O'Hara?

RK: This is an important theme in my book. We had a taboo structure in Washington when I was young. There were things you just didn't do, not because they were illegal, but just because they looked bad. And that whole category seems to have eroded in the last 20 years, eroded to the point of disappearance. For example, Tom Daschle came to town as a warrior liberal fighting for little guys and ends up humiliated by the discovery that he was being a fat-cat lobbyist without even registering as a lobbyist, exploiting a loophole in the reporting law. And taking big, big money from all kinds of special interests, including some from the realm he would be overseeing if he was secretary of Health and Human Services.

The Jim O'Hara story you mention is one that is fascinating to me. I remember it vividly because I was covering Congress when this happened. Jim O'Hara was a popular and serious liberal Democratic congressman from Michigan who ran for a Senate seat in 1976. O'Hara lost and had to come back to town with five or six kids and no job. He had to find a paycheck. And he went to work for Tom Boggs, one of the biggest lobbyists in town. This was seen in 1977 as something that was scandalous. "Jim O'Hara became a lobbyist? Gee, that doesn't look right." I talked to Leon Panetta, now our CIA director, about this. He was in the House at that time. And he said, "Oh yes, I remember when O'Hara came up to the House, exploiting the privilege to visit the floor"—which all former members have forever—"and he came on the floor as a lobbyist, and I wouldn't talk to him. A lot of my colleagues wouldn't talk to him. Because it just didn't seem right."

And now we have 185—I think that's the latest number—former members of Congress registered to lobby. Absolutely taken for granted.

MJ: On the subject of Cassidy, this is a man who once helped pharmaceutical companies fight health care reform in the '90s. And yet, despite the fact that he repeatedly served corporate interests, he's a liberal Democrat.

RK: In his own mind.

MJ: You'd think he'd be less aligned with corporate America and more aligned with the little guy. How do you explain his motivations, and the way that he's made peace with himself?

RK: In the case of the pharmaceutical companies that Cassidy organized in 1993 when the Clintons were first trying to orchestrate health care reform, he saw, pure and simple, a business opportunity. Unlike you and many other professional political observers, Cassidy's first interest is not policy. It's money. And I think that is the instinct of most of these guys.

But despite all that, Cassidy can say, "I gave lots of money to liberal Democrats running for Congress, I'm still a liberal Democrat myself; I'm a good guy; I understand who the bad guys are." It's a coping mechanism for people who are in a position that others often don't think of as honorable or pure. And Cassidy himself gives a lot to charitable causes, always has, and looks at himself in the mirror and sees a good guy. He goes to mass every day. People are complicated. 

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