Clean up Washington: mission impossible?
Can any U.S. administration avoid the fate spelled out in the following 12 words? “We were elected to change Washington and we let Washington change us.”
Thus spoke John McCain when he formally accepted the Republican party’s nomination for president last September. He then listed a number of reasons why the party had lost the trust of the American people, including that “some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption”.
Those temptations cut across party lines and stem from the relentless rise of a system, over the past three decades, which has given special interest groups enormous influence over policy-making and led to what Robert G. Kaiser, author of a just-published book on lobbying, calls “a kind of ethical rot in the nation’s capital”.
Barack Obama promised to stop that rot in his long campaign for the U.S. presidency but there is reason to wonder whether his rhetoric on the stump is more likely to be translated into action than similar pledges made by every president in recent history.
A day after he took office, Obama issued an executive order to stop the rot. “As of today, lobbyists will be subject to stricter limits than under any other administration in history,” he said in signing the order. “If you are a lobbyist entering my administration, you will not be able to work on matters you lobbied on, or in the agencies you lobbied during the previous two years. When you leave government, you will not be able to lobby my administration for as long as I’m president.”
Except for the exceptions. Tom Daschle, for example, Obama’s nominee for the Health and Human Services portfolio, who was not a registered lobbyist but made more than $5 million advising a variety of clients, including some in health-related industries. (Daschle withdrew over a separate matter; $120,000 in unpaid taxes).
Another exception to the no lobbyist rule: William Lynn, expected to be confirmed as Deputy Defense Secretary soon. Lynn’s career is an example of the “revolving door” through which former government officials walk into corporate offices and lobbying firms that pay them richly to influence their former government colleagues.
Lynn worked as the Pentagon’s chief financial officer from 1997 to 2001 and then joined Raytheon, one of the Pentagon’s most important suppliers, as a registered lobbyist from 2002 to last year. Now, about to walk through the revolving door in the opposite direction, he has promised to recuse himself from dealing with defense projects he lobbied for while working for Raytheon.
CAN OBAMA FIX “A BROKEN SYSTEM”?
So, will Obama change Washington and fix what he calls “a broken system” or will Washington change him? For those who place high hopes in the new president’s ability to succeed where others have failed, a short trip back in history can provide some perspective. On January 22, 1993, another young president who swept into office on a platform of change signed an executive order on “the strictest ethics rules ever”.
That was Bill Clinton and the rules closely resembled those just announced by Obama.
Clinton’s rules did not curb the growth of what Kaiser calls “a new class in Washington, hustlers who exploited the public policy-making process for profit” and amassed wealth by passing “through the revolving door from public service to the ‘private sector’, the Washington euphemism for the influence-peddling industry.”
The industry is one reason why the United States does not score very well on an international index on corruption compiled annually by Transparency International, a corruption watchdog based in Berlin. The U.S. comes in at number 18, below European and Asian countries ranging from New Zealand and Singapore to Germany and Britain.
In his book (So Damn Much Money, the Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American government), Kaiser ascribes the growth of the system partly to the perennial need for money by congressional candidates to pay for their increasingly expensive election campaigns. In 1974, the average winning campaign for the Senate cost $437,000; by 2006, that had grown to $7.92 million. The cost of winning House campaigns grew from $56,500 to $1.3 million.
Congressmen face re-election every two years, which means they are perpetually on the stump. The money they need for this can be raised from the interest groups and individuals for whom the politician can do favors in the future.
Forty years ago, according to Kaiser, lobbying was done by a small group of lawyers and fixers. Today, it is a multibillion-dollar industry of thousands of people, including nearly 200 ex-senators and congressmen, both Democrats and Republicans. It’s an establishment and a culture that looks change-resistant – presidential promises notwithstanding.
You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com. For previous columns, click here.