“This Town,” a new book about Washington by Mark Leibovich, the chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, is a surprise best seller.
But it’s no surprise that the book recounts anew the story of money’s dominant role in our political system. The book reveals the seamy story about the ways that money affects what gets done in Washington.
As is widely known, political contributions by lobbyists and their clients give them access and influence far beyond that of the average citizen. Their gifts fuel the high-cost campaigns often needed to ensure the re-election of members of Congress.
Are positions taken by people in Congress influenced by campaign contributions? Of course, they are.
But the book reveals that the situation is even worse than that. Lobbyists promise senators and House members lucrative jobs after they leave Congress, knowing that the mere suggestion of a job gets office holders to line up enthusiastically in support of their clients’ interests.
And the lobbyists come through with jobs. About half of those leaving Congress stay in Washington and work on legislative matters for big-spending clients.
Supposedly, they are not allowed to lobby for a year after their term ends, but they easily get around the law by claiming to be consultants while directing the work of front-line lobbyists for that year.
It would be difficult to believe that the retired officials don’t occasionally chat with their former colleagues about something more than how the Washington Redskins are doing.
And the bitter partisanship that plagues Congress these days melts away in those golden days that come after what is still called “public service.” Some of the top lobbying firms are led by people from both parties, making it possible for them to talk with members on both sides of the aisle.
In other words, political philosophy is not allowed to stand in the way of profits. Some lobbyists are multi-millionaires.
But Washington doesn’t seem to be getting anything done, so why, you might reasonably ask, do corporations need lobbyists?
The answer is amazingly simple, according to the book. Many corporations want nothing to happen. So the bipartisan lobby firms work well in trying to ensure that bipartisan cooperation doesn’t break out in Congress and thwart their clients’ desire for inaction.
The Washington political community – Congress, lobbyists and the media – are all part of what Leibovich calls “the Club.” However partisan the nation’s capital appears to the rest of us, the leading players are friends all engaged in the same game.
Success for most of them is making a lot of money and getting invited to the right parties.
A Washington insider told me about yet another way money matters. It has to do with who gets to lead the two parties in Congress, including being chairpersons of committees.
It is often unrelated to merit or expertise. It depends on loyalty to the current party leaders and the ability to contribute or raise campaign funds.
That’s why so many members of the House and Senate raise money to contribute to other candidates to those chambers. When they raise large sums to go into party or campaign coffers, they take a step up on the leadership ladder.
Maine Democrat George Mitchell was chair of his party’s Senate campaign committee. His great success in raising money and electing Democrats helped him to be chosen as Senate Majority Leader.
Nothing described by the book or in this column is illegal. People with money can use it to ensure that laws limiting political funds don’t pass, so the system continually renews itself. In fact, the power of well-financed lobbyists has sharply increased in recent years.
The underlying cause is the Supreme Court ruling that spending money for political purposes is the same as speech. And free speech is guaranteed by the Constitution.
The power of money and the need for those in Congress to cater to their leaders so they gain political clout threatens to make senators and House members less concerned about their constituents.
Of course, they serve the core interests of their states and districts, but on other issues, possibly less important and certainly less visible, many can serve their own career interests.
The clear message of “This Town” is that Washington belongs to the members of the “Club” and their backers and not to the people who elected Congress.
Does the book’s success mean that people are now concerned about this situation or only that many Washingtonians want to see if their names are in it as members of the Club?