By Richard S. Dunham
"Are you now, or have you ever been...a Democrat?" It hardly sounds as ominous as the McCarthy-era interrogations. But if some business lobbyists and Republican pols have their way, a "yes" answer could bar certain corporate reps from access to the White House and GOP circles on Capitol Hill.
Washington's latest political initiative is known as the K Street Project -- sort of a Manhattan Project of political warfare. The brainchild of peripatetic conservative activist Grover G. Norquist, think of it as a kind of Afghanistan operation on the Potomac: Search out the enemy (read Democrats) in every nook and cranny of K Street, the downtown D.C. corridor known for its lobbyist offices and expense-account restaurants.
Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, notes quite accurately that Washington's business lobbying corps is honeycombed with Democrats. Among the reasons: A huge number of Democratic Hill staffers lost their jobs in the Republican rout of 1994, and they sought refuge with the business groups that had underwritten their old bosses' campaigns. A second wave of Democratic refugees hit K Street in 2001, after the defeat of Al Gore.
STEAMED OVER PLUMS.
Meanwhile, many top GOP K Street operatives have signed up with the Bush Administration, creating employment opportunities for the other party.
Republicans on Capitol Hill, among them House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), have long complained that business plays both sides of the fence when donating to candidates. They believe corporate contributors should give overwhelmingly (if not exclusively) to their loyal allies in the GOP.
They're also steamed that prominent Democrats have been given plum trade association jobs. Case in point: former Oklahoma Representative Dave McCurdy, a leading New Democrat, who beat out prominent Republican candidates for the top job at the American Electronics Assn.
WINNER TAKES MOST.
Norquist's dream is to create a master list of the political proclivities, campaign contributions, and past partisan jobs held by Washington influence-peddlers. When it's complete, White House and congressional Republican leaders would be able to check the handy-dandy list before deciding whether a specific lobbyist is worthy of an appointment. Or a piece of legislation.
In effect, it would be a political blacklist. (Or, maybe it should be called a political bluelist, in honor of the "blue" states on TV maps in the 2000 election, signifying those won by Democrat Gore, as opposed to the "red" zone of Republican George W. Bush.)
While the frustrations of Norquist, DeLay, and the rest may be understandable, this project is silly and futile. In addition to the ethical questions involved in creating a political "loyalty test," the premise has a basic flaw, which is that business really cares more about ideology than simply looking out for its own interests. Fat chance.
Business loves a winner. When Republicans win, business gives predominantly to Republicans. When Democrats win, as during the Clinton era, business gives to both parties.
This year, with Congress narrowly divided, corporate reps are not going to bet the ranch on a Republican sweep, K Street Project or not. Most business lobbyists will want to maintain monetary ties to prominent Democrats in the event the Dems keep control of the Senate and recapture the House. It's just business -- the pragmatic thing to do.
Indeed, most Washington lobbying shops are bipartisan affairs. Quinn Gillespie is led by Jack Quinn, former Clinton White House counsel, and Ed Gillespie, ex-Republican National Committee spokesman and Bush campaign adviser. Business, when it hopes to curry favor, wants to hire a lobbying firm that has ties to both political parties.
THE D.C. TANGO.
You can say this much for Norquist's loopy K Street Project, however: It has unmasked the great shakedown of the business community by politicians. For years, many pundits have ranted that the primary cause of the political arms race is Big Business trying to buy influence. In reality, the opposite is much closer to the truth.
Washington politicians control the influence game by shaking down corporate reps with the lure of access or the threat of access denied. Just look at the industries and corporations that anted up a quarter-million dollars to hear the President give his standard stump speech at the Washington Convention Center on June 19.
Yes, some businesses shamelessly try to win friends and influence legislation. More often than not, though, it's the pols who take the lead in the D.C. tango.
By nakedly linking political contributions to access, the K Street Project reminds Americans of the vital connection between money and politics in Washington. And, most of all, it reminds us of the desperate desire of partisans to bleed business dry in the search for campaign dollars to nuke their opponents. In the end, it's no Manhattan Project. It's not even rocket science.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht