The Republicans swept into Congress in 1994, buoyed by persistent dissatisfaction with a moribund Democratic establishment, and thereby regaining a majority of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Led by fiery ideologues such as Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, as well as ancillary (non-elected) figures such as Grover Norquist and Jack Abramoff, the Republicans proposed a frighteningly wide platform of institutional reforms that promised to fundamentally change the relationship between the American people and their government. The time had come, or so the conservative establishment believed, to roll back government spending, cut taxes across the spectrum, and dismantle the framework of regulation and entitlement that had been erected over the previous sixty years following Roosevelt’s “New Deal”.
Of course, the history books will show that the “Republican revolution” failed in almost all of its goals. Responsibility for much of this failure must go to Bill Clinton. Although in the remaining six years of his presidency he was never able to regain the whirlwind momentum that had marked the beginning of his term, he was able to counter Republican advances at every turn. The antipathy between Clinton and the Republican-dominated congress created a culture of almost paralytic obsession with scandal and perceived scandal, a movement which culminated with the president’s impeachment in 1999. Still, through all this the Republicans managed to achieve almost nothing in the way of their proposals, least of all the sweeping reforms promised by their “Contract With America”. What gains they did make, such as Welfare reform, were summarily co-opted by Clinton as achievements of bipartisan amity.
In 2000, the election of George W. Bush promised to reinvigorate the conservative movement, considering that at the time Republicans controlled both the presidency and the House of Representatives (as well as, arguably, the majority of the judicial branch). Between 2002 and 2006, the Republicans controlled both houses of congress as well as the presidency. And yet, spending has continued to expand at a disconcertingly rapid rate. Bush’s vaunted tax cuts have not resulted in any proportionate drop in federal spending. (Does anyone even remember the budget surplus? Whatever happened to that?) The ensuing deficit spending has resulted in a massive weakening of the dollar at the worst possible time, as American interests are under assault both from foreign threats and international competition.
The conservative movement has stalled, undone from within. The K Street Gang details the rise and fall of this peculiar movement in American politics, primarily through the rise to prominence and subsequent corruption of Republican lobbyists such as Jack Abramoff. Abramoff had risen through the ranks of young conservatives through such organizations as the College Republicans, incubation tanks for a generation of politicos inspired by the ascent of Ronald Reagan. The Republican rise to power in 1994 created the demand for a new breed of lobbyists: aggressive, wide-ranging and well versed in the intricacies of Washington power. At its height, the K Street Project succeeded in almost entirely realigning the flow of money through Washington. Whereas the Republicans had gained power on a platform of eliminating corruption and reducing bureaucracy, the K Street Project grew into a political machine of such scope and reach as to dwarf the wildest dreams of Tammany Hall.
Although the details grew surpassingly complex, the general pattern was simple enough: first, the Republican leadership dictated terms to lobbying groups and corporate interests, in many cases outright barring them from having any financial contact with Democratic candidates or PACs. The new lobbyists would funnel money directly from corporate clients and special-interest groups and into Republican campaign coffers across the nation. In return, the proliferation of earmarks and special-interest entitlement proposals grew to scandalous proportions—and as the money paid into Republican hands resulted in measurable benefits, more and more of this money became available to Republican lobbyists. The mania for spending cuts and budget reductions disappeared as Republican lawmakers saw fit to expand corporate entitlements and continue massive discretionary spending through the use of budgetary earmarks, small spending initiatives stapled to the coattails of larger appropriations bills. No one could seriously consider cutting the budget with so many mouths to feed, so many pet projects to keep afloat; running for congress every two years is expensive business, after all, and the Republicans needed the constant flow of funds provided by the K Street machine to keep the gears running smoothly.
In such an environment, the advent of a Jack Abramoff was almost inevitable; with so much money flowing freely in and out of the power corridors of Washington, it was only natural that someone would seize the advantage for their own benefit. Abramoff enjoyed the highest possible pedigree in Republican circles: a veteran of the College Republicans as well as a close friend of Norquist, he was well placed at the apex of the conservative hierarchy. There were few lawmakers (including many, many Democrats) in the town who didn’t know Abramoff, or who hadn’t received funding from one of his many PACs. So much money was involved that it took a long time before anyone noticed that some of it was missing—in specific, that tens of millions of dollars solicited by Abramoff from Indian gaming interests had been funneled into personal accounts. This money had been used for a variety of failed business dealings, including a failed investment in riverboat casino gambling and a private school for his own children. His massive web of Washington connections ensured preferential treatment for his investments as well as his cronies. Along the way, he managed to chart strange connections between the Christian Coalition, Russian arms dealers, and even, incredibly, the Gambino crime family. Reading Continetti’s account, it’s almost easier to list the malfeasances Abramoff wasn’t involved in than to catalog the ones he was.
The question at the heart of Continetti’s book is a simple one: if you accept that the confluence of money and power behind the K Street Project not only resulted in the ethical and ideological bankruptcy of the conservative movement, as well as creating the environment where predators such as Abramoff could thrive, what does this say about the conservative movement in general? As he makes clear at numerous points throughout the narrative, Continetti is a true believer, a conservative partisan who mourns the lost idealism of 1994 and spares nothing in the way of wrath for those whom he considers as traitors to the cause. He offers a number of suggestions by way of improvement, most of them commonsense (bipartisan redistricting, the banning of earmarks to appropriations bills, ending corporate welfare in one fell stroke). He even makes a suggestion that, strangely enough, finds common-cause between anti-regulatory conservatism and common-sense liberalism: dismantling the incredibly complex edifice of campaign funding rules that was been constructed in the wake of Watergate and returning to the old system of unlimited donations countered by immediate and total disclosure. Perhaps such a wholesale reversal would require tinkering, but both sides can at least agree that the current campaign finance restrictions are wholly broken, merely creating the kind of rats’ nest of intricacies that allowed a snake like Abramoff to thrive away from the glare of public disapprobation.
These suggestions, however, skirt around what to some may seem the book’s, central question, but which Continetti seems wholly unsuited to consider: is there something inherent in the conservative philosophy that creates the necessary conditions for corruption? Obviously, Republicans have no monopoly on corruption, and it would be asinine to suggest otherwise. Money has been inextricably bound with politics for as long as there has been a politics, and some of the most crooked politicians in American history have been Democrats. But there is something startling about the facility with which the Republicans established the K Street Project and the bald-faced earnestness with which they regarded the influence of money on politics as an unalloyed good. As Continetti quotes DeLay (unfortunately, undated):
You’ve got to understand, we’re ideologues . . . We have an agenda. We have a philosophy. I want to repeal the Clean Air Act. No one came to me and said, “Please repeal the Clean Air Act”. We say to the lobbyists, “Help us”. We know what we want to do and we find the people to help us do that. We go to the lobbyists and say, “Help us get this in the appropriations bill”.
To Continetti, the stunning disclosure here is just how intertwined the processes of legislation and lobbying had become, in such a way that professional lobbyists became more adept at manipulating the rules of government than the elected officials whom, one supposes, are elected to do just that. This abdication is indeed lamentable, but more importantly even than this admission is the ends to which these means are drawn.
Continetti ultimately concludes, in echoes of the 1994 revolution. that the true source of corruption is the very structure of modern government. “As the sphere of public decision-making expands, so does the pool of potential graft,” he observes correctly. His solution “Shrink the sphere of public decision making”.
The regulatory state issues rules and regulations at a dizzying pace, regulations that corporations through their lobbyists, attempt to influence to their advantage. Solution: cut regulation.
The Republicans failed not because their goals were unwise, but because their methods were self-defeating: seeking to cut regulations without simultaneously cutting off corporate welfare and private appropriations. Corrupt lobbyists, therefore, are a symptom of government overreach.
All of which is well and good if you’re examining the problem from a purely theoretical level, but not if you are actually forced to live in a world wherein the Clean Air Act is repealed. The Republicans who rose to prominence in 1994 were such tremendous idealists that, like the founding father of the Soviet Union, they refused to let anything so messy reality cloud their judgments: business and private initiative is an unalloyed good which must be allowed untrammeled freedom without exception. If business overreaches, it is because government has given it an opportunity to exploit its baser tendencies. Said government is the root of all evil, and any interference government to the unrestricted flow of commerce is an incontrovertible sin. They’ve read and memorized Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations ... or at least the parts that discuss the endlessly ameliorating qualities of the “invisible hand”, and not the later chapters on the benefits of a vigorous welfare state.
The most illuminating thinker of the modern conservative movement has to be Grover Norquist, as much for what his statements inadvertently reveal to his opponents as for what they communicate to his followers: this is the man who famously flaunted his desire to reduce the federal government to a small enough size to be drowned in a bathtub, and likened the architecture in Washington, DC to “Neo-American fascism ... Stuff that looks like Albert Speer designed it.” In the wake of Proposition 13, the 1978 California stature that drastically reduced property taxes used to pay for, among other things, education, Norquist said:
... Two shibboleths have been smashed. One said that paying taxes to the government was like giving to the United Way, and the other said that you got it all back in services.
I wonder if Norquist has looked at the state of California public schools lately, or examined their rapid decline in the three decades following Prop 13? Norquist’s arguments, and that of the modern conservative movement in general, can be refuted with two basic formulations.
One: just because people—voters, politicians, idealogues—do not believe that their tax money goes to necessary goods and services does not necessarily make it so. The case of federal funding for schools presents a perfect example of this concept in action. People without a direct interest in the quality of public schools may not see the value in investing in public schools, but the consequences of allowing those who do not wish to pay for public schools to opt out of paying is a reduction in the general quality of society for everyone. Paying for public schools allows for subsequent improvements in every single sector of society which can benefit from having an educated and economically empowered workforce, and not a frustrated and dangerous permanent lower class. These are quantitative goods from which all of society benefits.
Two: just because government is not as efficient as it could be, is in fact corrupt and slothful and in some cases criminally inefficient, does not mean that the institution of government is wholly destructive. Government is only as good as the people who run it—if conservatives necessarily distrust bureaucracies, the natural liberal solution is to reform and revamp, not to destroy. Liberals are often accused of high-minded utopianism at the expense of reality, but the conservative thinkers of whom Continetti is a perfect example suffer from much the same malady, wishing not to engage with the world as it actually presents itself but to effect wholesale transformation in hopes of creating some hoped-for utopian ideal of minuscule government and unfettered enterprise.
The conservatives, emboldened by Democratic sloth and the failure of many “big government” initiatives throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, moved into the ideological opening created by the ascension of Ronald Reagan to champion a reform agenda that actually masked a sharply reactionary turn. Wishing not merely to push back the bloated “Great Society” of Lyndon Johnson but to turn back the clock to a pre-“New Deal”—and in places even a pre-Grover Cleveland—status quo, the Republicans comically overreached and succeeded in achieving absolutely none of their larger goals. From one perspective, it’s easy to see them as canny operators, manipulating the body politic for the benefit of corporate interests—but it’s also possible to see the College Republicans as painfully naive, so confident in the goodness and virtue of business and entrepreneurship that they were blinded by the possibilities of garden-variety avarice in their midst. Corruption is not merely, as Continetti ultimately maintains, a force of nature that will seep into the joints of any establishment, but a conscience decision made by individual people for specific goals.
Thankfully, the influence thinkers such as Norquist exert on the Republican mainstream is not absolute, and appears to be on the wane. Corruption tends to discredit ideologies, and the modern Republican Party, chastened by electoral losses and ethical lapses, looks to be regaining its natural skepticism for ideological boondoggles. (From a centrist point of view, imagining Norquist at the vanguard of the Republican Party makes about as much sense as inviting Noam Chomsky to write the Democratic Party platform.) Liberals are many things, but most importantly the last few decades have made them skeptical as well: skeptical of corporations and unfettered capitalism, but also, thanks to Watergate and the failure of the “Great Society”, skeptical about the role of government in public life and the limitations of public spending. (This is an interesting reversal of fortunes, considering that skepticism has traditionally been a conservative virtue, dating back to the says of Edmund Burke.) Liberal skepticism is not conservative rejectionism: it’s an aggressive commitment to improve upon the failures of the past, building something new instead of hoping to reestablish old and discarded ideas.
The knee-jerk adherence to conservative ideology has produced an odd paralysis in the Republican body politic, now that folks like Jack Abramoff have dismantled the ideological higher-ground upon which the 1994 revolution was built. Books like The K Street Gang are strange artifacts, necessary autopsies of horrible behavior but also ritualized floggings, exercises in masochism from chastened but unrepentant Republican ideologues. The problem is simple: conservative ideology rejects government power as ultimately corrupting, while embracing corporatism as an unfettered good. But money is power, and all power ultimately exerts a corrupting influence. It is the responsibility of a wise and just government to exert a positive influence over all spheres of power within both the government and the body politic, establishing effective checks and balances and oversight over not merely the branches of the federal government but the various constituencies of the body politic as well. Just because the government we have now is neither wise nor just does not mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.