Dan and I reported that over 100 former congressional staffers and executive branch employees — including some extremely well-connected people — have left public service and are now lobbying on behalf of the zombie banks being kept afloat by your tax dollars. Despite Obama’s efforts to change the revolving door culture of Washington, the huge gobs of money being handed out by the federal government these days means the Capitol Hill/K Street connection is more prevalent than ever. As Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation told me when we were reporting our story, “It has not gone unnoticed by special interests or K Street firms that there is a bonanza there.”
It hasn’t gone unnoticed by former congressmen and senators, either. According to Bloomberg, a full one-quarter of lawmakers who retired or were defeated in 2008 have moved to K Street. There is absolutely no concern anymore for the ethical questions that move creates. Bob Kaiser, author of So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, gave me a great bit of historical context on this when I did a Q&A with him in March. I find it fascinating. I think you might, too.
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.