Jacob Heilbrunn

Hooray, K Street Is Back!

[amazon 0452009995 full]Are the freshmen Republicans being naughty already? That's the gist of a Washington Post story today, which alleges that the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed eager beavers who campaigned on the promise to overturn the old Washington are already succumbing to its sinister ways.

There is, of course, an element of lipsmacking delight in writing such a story, a pleasurable frisson of delight at how quickly the innocent slip into the ways of Washington. Schadenfreude, you could say.

But is it really a bad thing? Hostility toward Washington is an old story. In Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Moore's The Gilded Age, the authors describe the nation's capital as “the maddest Vanity Fair one could conceive,” a “feverish, unhealthy atmosphere in which lunacy would be easily developed.” Twain and Moore depict politicians as the playthings of lobbyists, something that Laura Hawkins, a beautiful frontierswoman innocent of politics soon becomes once she lands in Washington, DC. Her sole purpose is to try and enrich her family. Henry Adams in Democracy took a similarly jaundiced view: Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe is a power broker who wants to be president. Like most other politicians, he can be bought and sold by powerful behind-the-scenes interests.

Again and again, we are told, lobbyists are a bad thing, inimical to American democracy. The facts suggest otherwise. For one thing, lobbyists help grease the legislative process. They force legislators to listen to interests groups who represent, among other things, the elderly, big coal, nuclear power, Indian tribes. Yes, Tom DeLay's fabled "K Street project" ran amok. But demonizing lobbyists amounts to demonizing much of America. Ranting about lobbyists is like complaining about government pork--they're both unpopular and indispensable.

It's true that a certain hypocrisy can be detected among the fledgling Republican legislators. The Post reports:

The contributions also represent a symbolic challenge for the Republican Class of 2010, which makes up the vast majority of first-time members of the 112th Congress. Many of them won office by running against the ways of official Washington and monied interests.

"The lobbyists are all saying, 'Welcome to Washington; let me help pay off your debt,'" said Nancy Watzman, who tracks political fundraisers for the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group. "It's particularly interesting when so many of this year's freshmen were running against Washington. But as soon as they get elected, they come to Washington and put out their hand."

Good. It suggests that the legislators are far savvier than their public rhetoric would indicate. America is the country of free enterprise. What would America come to if a legislator couldn't be influenced by money? They might actually vote according to their own convictions, which could be a far more terrifying prospect.

Indeed, the great historian AJP Taylor once observed that the real mischief begins when statesmen try to act on their principles. Woodrow Wilson declaring a war to end all wars. George W. Bush launching a crusade for freedom in Iraq. The examples could easily be multiplied.

The truly novel thing would be if Congress wasn't for sale. So far, it appears that the venerable tradition of influence-peddling isn't about to come to an end. Quite the contrary.