The familiar ring of the K Street Project

THE FAMILIAR RING OF THE K STREET PROJECT…. The notorious K Street Project became synonymous with Republican excesses of the Gingrich/DeLay/Bush era, and for good reason. Among its components was a heavy-handed scheme to “encourage” corporate PACs to contribute to Republican candidates, or face adverse consequences.

It became a devastating scandal for the Republican Party, and Exhibit A in the culture of corruption that drove the GOP from power in 2006. Indeed, when John Boehner (R-Ohio) sought a leadership post in January 2006, he vowed that under his guidance, “[T]here will no longer be a K Street Project, or anything else like it.”

The elaborate scheme has not been resuscitated, at least not yet. But corporate PAC money has shifted heavily in Republicans’ direction this year, at least in part because of the kind of tactics we saw when the K Street Project was in full force.

Corporate America is gambling on the minority in its political giving this year, assuming that Republicans will win big in the November midterm elections, an analysis of campaign finance reports shows…. The change comes as top Republicans lawmakers appeal more directly to business leaders, putting them on notice that the GOP is keeping track of the corporate donations ledger and will remember who stood by the party.

As part of an effort dubbed “Sell the Fight,” House Republican leaders have met privately with corporate executives and lobbyists to argue that their giving has tilted too far toward Democrats and that they need to steer more money to industry-friendly GOP candidates in key races in 2010.

“These corporate leaders and lobbyists have got interests and clients they need to look out for, and they are reading the tea leaves just like everyone else,” said Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), the deputy chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who has made several private pitches to corporate PAC leaders.

When the K Street Project began, part of the larger scheme included Tom DeLay keeping a list of corporate lobbyists categorized as “friendly” and “unfriendly” based on campaign contributions. “Friendly” corporate lobbyists who directed PAC contributions to Republicans were rewarded with influence and access. “Unfriendly” corporate lobbyists and those who dared to donate to Democrats were locked out, or in some cases, blacklisted.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest these tactics have been brought back in earnest. But we’re starting to see hints of the old, ugly, corrupt machine when Republicans leaders not-so-subtly remind business leaders that the party is “keeping score.” In other words, GOP officials expect to be back in the majority in 2011, and if corporate lobbyists want to start writing legislation again, the way they did before there was a Democratic majority, they’ll have to buy that influence again.

When the NRCC’s Greg Walden met with 80 corporate PAC leaders in March, for example, he said he wasn’t making any threats. He simply said Republican leaders are “evaluating giving patterns,” and in the next breath, he pointed to competitive congressional races where these lobbyists “can make an investment in a Republican candidate you will like.”

I seem to recall subtle messages like these being featured on “The Sopranos.” I can hear Boehner now, “That’s a nice amendment you want in the appropriations bill. It’d be a shame if something happened to it.”

Republicans gave the American political system a bad name during their reign of error. There are already hints that the sequel will be more offensive than the original.