So Damn Much Money

so-damn-much-money1Over the weekend I read a great review of So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government by Robert G. Kaiser [Knopf 2009]. (Kaiser is The Washington Post associate editor and senior correspondent.) The review was written by Michael Tomasky, the editor-at-large for The Guardian, and appears in the April 9, 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books. You should take a look at it for no other reason than to see why it is so important that Obama is able to clean out the lobbyists on K Street in Washington, D.C.

Michael Tomasky writes in his review: “A central aspect of Obama’s entire approach to governance has focused on the reducing the power and influence of these lobbies.”

What is key is what Obama said at the end of February in a radio-video address about his plans for his new administration: “I know these steps won’t sit well the special interests and lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they’re gearing up for a fight as we speak. My message to them is this: So am I.”

Who are these lobbyists? In his book, Robert Kaiser traces the rise of this “corroded culture” by “following the money,” so to speak. He tells the story of Gerald Cassidy and his firm. It is the tale of a Brooklyn boy liberal who today has a personal fortune exceeding $100 million, all earned through lobbying. As he tells the story, Tomasky writes in his engaging review, Kaiser shows how the lobbying business in Washington grew, along with other developments like the dramatic increase in the cost of election campaigns, leading to the present-day mess.

And it didn’t begin with Republicans: Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, and Jack Abramoff. No, our present day problem started with a Sixties idealistic liberal, Gerald Cassidy, who when he left Brooklyn worked in a legal aid program for itinerant farm workers in Florida, then for George McGovern, back when McGovern mattered, and when McGovern replaced Cassidy with that squirmy Bob Shrum, Cassidy and another young idealist, Ken Schlossberg, set up shop in the basement of Schlossberg’s Capitol Hill townhouse. Both of them had 1) liberal backgrounds, and 2) knowledge of nutrition issues from having been staffers on the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs.

Michael Tomasky in his long review asks the question: how does one parlay a background in poverty and food stamps into lobbying riches? We might also ask: what was the first step that Sixties Liberals took to get on a fast track to corrupting America?
It was easy. Tomasky details the baby steps of these two Toddlers on the Shady Walks of Capital Hill.

A California businessman whose company provided ingredients for school lunches had complained that he had not been paid by the Department of Agriculture. The son of this man had met Ken Schlossberg and called him up. Gerald Cassidy knew a person who could help at the Department of Agriculture. The business man got his money. Cassidy/Schlossberg received their first lobbying check in the mail. It was as simple as that. In Washington it all comes down to is who one knows whom on Capital Hill, and do you have their cell #?

Next came the Kellogg Company to the basement office of these young lobbyists. They wanted help getting their breakfast cereals included in the school lunch program. Then the National Frozen Food Association needed a report on congressional attitudes towards supermarkets. Pillsbury, Nabisco, and General Mills came knocking at the door with money to spread around town. All of this is ‘normal’ enough for lobbyists. Business as usual in D.C.

Then the terrain changed. A Frenchman named Jean Mayer had just been appointed the president of Tufts University. Tomasky writes: “Mayer, sensitive to Tufts’s low status compared to Harvard, wanted to start a world-class nutrition center at the university. Could Cassidy and Schlossberg help some how?”

Cassidy went looking for an angle, i.e., a loophole, somewhere in the statutes and regulations he wanted a hole where he might wedge in Tufts’s request for a nutrition center. It turned out that a Senator Quentin Burdick of North Dakota had gotten federal money appropriated for a project in North Dakota. The wording suggested that this authorization was the way to fund with federal money the facility Mayer wanted for his university. Money that would be appropriated for 1) a specific institution (Tufts) to use for 2) a specific purpose (nutrition center). We call that loophole today “an earmark.” Kaiser writes that it was one of the first of its kind. He also writes that it didn’t hurt Cassidy/Schlossberg that Tip 0’Neill was the local congressman in Boston, and as we know about O’Neill: all politics is local.

Soon under universities took notice and Georgetown University (those Jesuits know how to follow the money) were looking for a piece of the action. Other followed these two universities. Soon Cassidy/Schlossberg were rich in lobbying fees and in Congress “earmarks” became routine on the Hill.

While Cassidy’s firm might have invented the earmark device it, was the Republicans who perfected it. Kaiser quotes retired Republican senator Chuck Hagel about the famous Tom DeLay K Street Project…..”They wanted to build a triad: the White House, K Street and business, and Congress, and just luck up the issues.”

That “project” came to an end when the lobbyist Jack Abramoff swindled Native American gaming interests out of millions and ended up in jail where he is currently serving time.

Cassidy, meanwhile, is still walking the halls of Congress, pressing the flesh, but he has lost some of his power in his old age. Also he split with his buddy Ken Schlossberg years ago. That is a great story to end this blog.

It seems the break up of the Cassidy/Schlossberg basement firm came at the 1984 Democratic convention. There was a dispute between the partners over whether Schlossberg and his wife could use a limousine the firm had hired to drive about an hour north of San Francisco to look at some Brittany spaniel puppies the Schlossbergs wanted to buy. The Cassidy/Schlossberg firm was going to the dogs!

Well, enough is enough, even for low life like lobbyists.

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  • The term “lobbyist” was coined to describe the guys who hung out in the lobby of the Willard Hotel which is about two blocks from the White House in the latter 19th Century. They would wait in the lobby to catch Congressmen and those in the Executive Office and press them to include their interests in new legislation and vote their way. So lobbying is hardly new, take it from someone who grew up about 20 blocks away from the Willard.

    I have nothing against lobbyists, the National Peace Corps Association is one itself. We have a large country and it takes a large voice to get your position considered. That does not mean I condone corruption, I believe we can lobby based on the merits of our position. Again, this is what the NPCA does.

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