When presidents pick someone to fill a job in the government, it’s typically a very public affair. The White House circulates press releases and background materials. Congress holds a hearing, where some members will pepper the nominee with questions and others will shower him or her with praise. If the person in question is controversial or up for an important position, they’ll rate a profile or two in the papers. But there’s one confirmation hearing you won’t hear much about. It’s convened every Tuesday morning by Rick Santorum, the junior senator from Pennsylvania, in the privacy of a Capitol Hill conference room, for a handpicked group of two dozen or so Republican lobbyists. Occasionally, one or two other senators or a representative from the White House will attend. Democrats are not invited, and neither is the press.
The chief purpose of these gatherings is to discuss jobs–specifically, the top one or two positions at the biggest and most important industry trade associations and corporate offices centered around Washington’s K Street, a canyon of nondescript office buildings a few blocks north of the White House that is to influence-peddling what Wall Street is to finance. In the past, those people were about as likely to be Democrats as Republicans, a practice that ensured K Street firms would have clout no matter which party was in power. But beginning with the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, and accelerating in 2001, when George W. Bush became president, the GOP has made a determined effort to undermine the bipartisan complexion of K Street.
And Santorum’s Tuesday meetings are a crucial part of that effort. Every week, the lobbyists present pass around a list of the jobs available and discuss whom to support. Santorum’s responsibility is to make sure each one is filled by a loyal Republican–a senator’s chief of staff, for instance, or a top White House aide, or another lobbyist whose reliability has been demonstrated. After Santorum settles on a candidate, the lobbyists present make sure it is known whom the Republican leadership favors. “The underlying theme was [to] place Republicans in key positions on K Street. Everybody taking part was a Republican and understood that that was the purpose of what we were doing,” says Rod Chandler, a retired congressman and lobbyist who has participated in the Santorum meetings. “It’s been a very successful effort.”
If today’s GOP leaders put as much energy into shaping K Street as their predecessors did into selecting judges and executive-branch nominees, it’s because lobbying jobs have become the foundation of a powerful new force in Washington politics: a Republican political machine. Like the urban Democratic machines of yore, this one is built upon patronage, contracts, and one-party rule. But unlike legendary Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, who rewarded party functionaries with jobs in the municipal bureaucracy, the GOP is building its machine outside government, among Washington’s thousands of trade associations and corporate offices, their tens of thousands of employees, and the hundreds of millions of dollars in political money at their disposal.
At first blush, K Street might not seem like the best place to build a well-oiled political operation. For most of its existence, after all, the influence industry has usually been the primary obstacle to aggressive, ambitious policy-making in Washington. But over the last few years, Republicans have brought about a revolutionary change: They’ve begun to capture and, consequently, discipline K Street. Through efforts like Santorum’s–and a House version run by the majority whip, Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)–K Street is becoming solidly Republican. The corporate lobbyists who once ran the show, loyal only to the parochial interests of their employer, are being replaced by party activists who are loyal first and foremost to the GOP. Through them, Republican leaders can now marshal armies of lobbyists, lawyers, and public relations experts–not to mention enormous amounts of money–to meet the party’s goals. Ten years ago, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the political donations of 19 key industry sectors–including accounting, pharmaceuticals, defense, and commercial banks–were split about evenly between the parties. Today, the GOP holds a two-to-one advantage in corporate cash.
That shift in large part explains conservatives’ extraordinary legislative record over the last few years. Democrats, along with the press, have watched in mounting disbelief as President Bush, lacking either broad majorities in Congress or a strong mandate from voters, has enacted startlingly bold domestic policies–from two major tax cuts for the rich, to a rollback of workplace safety and environmental standards, to media ownership rules that favor large conglomerates. The secret to Bush’s surprising legislative success is the GOP’s increasing control of Beltway influence-peddlers. K Street used to be a barrier to sweeping change in Washington. The GOP has turned it into a weapon.
Lobbyists on a Leash
To see how effective this machine can be, one need only compare the Bush administration’s current push to reform Medicare with Bill Clinton’s 1993 attempt to pass universal health insurance. Both set out to enact revolutionary changes in the nation’s health-care system. And by most measures, Clinton would have seemed more likely to succeed, having staked his presidential campaign on the popular issue at a time when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. By contrast, Bush rarely mentioned Medicare during his campaign, and enjoys much slimmer majorities in Congress. Furthermore, although his prescription-drug benefit is popular, Bush’s stated goal of moving more seniors into private health plans is most definitely not. Yet where Clinton’s plan met an ignominious death, Bush’s appears headed for speedy passage.
There were, of course, many reasons why Clinton failed, from mishandling relations with congressional leaders to the perceived insularity and arrogance of the task force of policy wonks Hillary Clinton assembled to tackle the challenge of achieving universal health care. But another major obstacle was the business and health-care interests on K Street. Clinton worked to win their backing. Among other things, his plan would have capped employer contributions to workers’ health insurance at a level far below what many large companies, like General Motors and Kodak, were already paying to their employees’ health plans, saving the companies billions of dollars. But some of those firms nevertheless denounced Clinton’s plan after it was unveiled, rightly believing that they could bid up the price of their support even more. Meanwhile, conservative activists, eager to deny a new Democratic president his first major political victory, worked to convince business lobbyists that they would gain more by opposing Clinton than by supporting him. As more and more K Street lobbies abandoned Clinton, the plan went down to defeat.
Bush has taken a different approach. Instead of convening policy wonks to solve a problem, he issued a price tag and a political goal: Set Medicare on the road to privatization. When legislators from both parties balked at his initial proposal to offer more generous drug benefits to seniors who left Medicare for private plans, Bush dropped it–but retained incentives to lure seniors into the private market. What he didn’t have to do was fight K Street, because the lobbyists were already tamed. Those health-care interests that had doubts about Bush’s plan have been successfully pressured to keep quiet. Most of the rest have given Bush their full support.
A good example is the pharmaceutical industry. Drug companies have a natural affinity for the GOP’s effort to move seniors into private plans, because if Medicare were to begin providing prescription drugs, its bargaining power could drive down drug prices. But over the past few years, Republican leaders have carefully cultivated and cajoled the industry. The upper ranks of its Washington trade group, PhRMA, are stocked with former aides to powerful Republicans, and its political behavior reflects it: The industry, which gave roughly evenly during the fight over Clinton’s health-care plan, now contributes 80 percent of its money to Republicans. PhRMA has essentially become an extension of the GOP. It supported Bush’s plan with a multimillion-dollar ad campaign even before the plan had been finalized and made public, and continued its support even as Bush compromised in ways that went against the drug industry’s interests. By contrast, large corporations waited to see what Clinton’s plan looked like and then haggled over its details, while health-care companies funded the famous “Harry and Louise” ads that eventually helped sink it.
Bush’s Medicare legislation could still stall or get watered down. But the fact that the White House and the GOP have pushed it so far, so fast, regardless of the risk and downside, hints not only at the power of an organized K Street, but at the political end to which it is being directed. For years, conservatives have tried and, mostly, failed to significantly reduce the size of the federal government. The large entitlement programs in particular command too much public support to be cut, let alone abolished. But by co-opting K Street, conservatives can do the next best thing–convert public programs like Medicare into a form of private political spoils. As a government program, Medicare is run by civil servants and controlled by elected officials of both parties.
Bush’s legislation creates an avenue to wean people from Medicare and into the private sector–or, at least, a version of the private sector. For under the GOP plan, the medical insurance industry would gradually become a captive of Washington, living off the business steered to it by the government but dependent on its Beltway lobbyists–themselves Republican surrogates–to maintain this stream of wealth. Over time, private insurers would grow to resemble the defense sector: closely entwined with government, a revolving door for Republican officials, and vastly supportive, politically and financially, of the GOP. Republicans are thus engineering a tectonic political shift in two phases. First, move the party to K Street. Then move the government there, too.
Rise of the Machine
The emerging Republican machine is the mirror image of that built by the Democratic Party under Franklin D. Roosevelt and his successors. The edifice of federal bureaucracy that emerged between the 1930s and the 1960s shifted power and resources from the private sphere to the public, while centralizing economic regulation in federal agencies and commissions. Democratic government taxed progressively, then redistributed that money through a vast and growing network of public institutions. Those constituencies that Democratic governance serviced best–the working class, the poor, veterans, the elderly, and, eventually, ethnic and racial minorities–made the Democrats the majority party. “Tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect,” as Roosevelt’s aide Harry Hopkins put it, became the basis of Democratic power.
For many years, most business leaders adopted a conciliatory approach to the new system and accepted its basic premises. But during the 1970s, prodded by intellectuals like Irving Kristol and Lewis Powell, businesses began funding a new wave of aggressively ideological think tanks and advocacy groups to challenge the intellectual underpinnings of Democratic governance. Corporations sought influence by opening Washington offices, launching PACs, and pouring money into their trade associations. Savvy GOP operatives steered that money toward the Republican Party. Between the early 1970s and mid-1980s, the number of trade associations doubled; between 1981 and 1985, the number of registered lobbyists in Washington quadrupled, vastly augmenting business power and giving rise to K Street.
But there was a limit to what these groups could accomplish: Democrats still enjoyed an entrenched majority in Congress. The need to cultivate them meant that K Street’s immediate interests would never align with the GOP’s even if, more often than not, their long-term interests did. As a result, there emerged a broadly bipartisan lobbying culture. To facilitate broad access, most trade associations hired lobbyists from both parties, who were expected to be pragmatic and nonideological. Although certain industries may have had traditional ties to one party, most corporate PACs distributed money roughly equally.
This culture flourished even during Ronald Reagan’s two terms. When Reagan was elected and Republicans won the Senate, GOP activists urged business to donate more to their party. But a little-known California Democrat named Tony Coelho stopped them in their tracks. As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he reminded business lobbyists that his party still controlled the House and, with it, the committees and subcommittees through which any legislation would have to pass. At the same time, he worked to convince businessmen that Democrats, too, could deliver for them. During Reagan’s first two years, Coelho tripled the DCCC’s fundraising. So even as the Republican realignment chugged ahead, Democrats retained a rough parity on K Street.
But while Democratic power endured, it contained an inherent tension. For the most part, K Street groups supported Democrats because they had to and Republicans because they wanted to. The Democrats needed corporate money to stay competitive, but were limited by the pull of their liberal, labor-oriented base. Although the party became generally more pro-business during the 1980s, it had few natural constituencies on K Street. At best, control of Congress allowed Democratic leaders to cut occasional deals with business interests, delivering key compromises–a tax break here, a floor vote there–in exchange for a portion of business giving.
Thus, under Democratic rule, the private sector remained unorganized, with lobbyists wielding huge influence, but in the service of a thousand different agendas and interests. And, as these multiplied, K Street became an obstacle to any large reforms. Lobbyists grew adept at larding ambitious legislation with special-interest provisions. When a reform threatened a large enough bloc, ad hoc coalitions could defeat almost anything, regardless of its popularity with voters. This inherent incoherence disadvantaged Republican presidents as much as it later would Clinton. Reagan’s 1981 tax cut, primarily intended as an across-the-board rate reduction for individuals, passed Congress as a special-interest bonanza adorned with far more corporate loopholes and special breaks than his advisers had planned, so ballooning the federal deficit that Reagan spent the remainder of his presidency ratcheting taxes back up, four times between 1982 and 1984 alone. “The hogs were really feeding,” David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, later confessed. “The greed level, the level of opportunism just got out of control.”
The DeLay School
It took something that hadn’t happened in 40 years to begin to change the culture of K Street: In 1994, Republicans won control of Congress. All of a sudden, the Democrats’ traditional power base evaporated, and with it much of their leverage over lobbyists. New Republican leaders like Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, and a handful of close advisers like Ed Gillespie and Grover Norquist, quickly consolidated power in the House, and turned their attention to the lobbying community. Revolutionaries all, they nursed a deep disdain for K Street pragmatism. “They had a hard time dealing with lobbyists who were used to dealing with Democrats [and] were looking at ways to change this in the interests of the [conservative] coalition,” says one conservative activist.
One way was to start ensuring that the new GOP agenda of radical deregulation, tax and spending cuts, and generally reducing government earned the financial support they thought it deserved. In 1995, DeLay famously compiled a list of the 400 largest PACs, along with the amounts and percentages of money they had recently given to each party. Lobbyists were invited into DeLay’s office and shown their place in “friendly” or “unfriendly” columns. (“If you want to play in our revolution,” DeLay told The Washington Post, “you have to live by our rules.”) Another was to oust Democrats from trade associations, what DeLay and Norquist dubbed “the K Street Strategy.” Sometimes revolutionary zeal got the better of them. One seminal moment, never before reported, occurred in 1996 when Haley Barbour, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee, organized a meeting of the House leadership and business executives. “They assembled several large company CEOs and made it clear to them that they were expected to purge their Washington offices of Democrats and replace them with Republicans,” says a veteran steel lobbyist. The Republicans also demanded more campaign money and help for the upcoming election. The meeting descended into a shouting match, and the CEOs, most of them Republicans, stormed out.
DeLay’s attempt to corral the private sector stalled soon after. While corporate giving took on a more Republican cast and more Republicans began to be hired, the GOP leadership experienced significant pushback, for two reasons. One was that Democrats still controlled the White House. The other was that, by most measures, Clinton’s presidency had been very good for business, especially for the large corporations who had supported Clinton’s efforts to bring the budget deficit under control. By 1996, corporate and trade association PACs still gave roughly three-quarters of their money to both parties’ incumbents. After Clinton’s 1996 reelection, Gingrich’s subsequent combustion, and Democratic gains in Congress two years later, the bipartisan lobbying culture remained largely intact.
It took the 2000 elections, which gave Republicans the White House and Congress, to completely change the climate. In the months after, Santorum became the Senate’s point man on K Street and launched his Tuesday meetings. Working on the outside, Norquist accelerated what he calls the “K Street Project,” a database intended to track the party affiliation, Hill experience, and political giving of every lobbyist in town. With Democrats out of power, these efforts are bearing fruit. Slowly, the GOP is marginalizing Democratic lobbyists and populating K Street with loyal Republicans. DeLay alone has placed a dozen of his aides at key lobbying and trade association jobs in the last few years–“graduates of the DeLay school,” as they are known.) Already, the GOP and some of its key private-sector allies, such as PhRMA, have become indistinguishable.
Dinging the Chicks
Republicans, of course, see things differently. “The Democrats are terrified that our K Street Project is going to replicate the way that they behaved when they had the House and Senate,” says Norquist. For him and many of his contemporaries, Democratic rule prior to 1994 was no less autocratic than that of Republicans today. But there’s a fundamental difference: Democrats were limited by the basic tension between pleasing their labor base and corporate interests. Unions did, and still do, function as arms of the Democratic Party. When it came to the vastly bigger interests on K Street, someone like Coelho could aim only for financial parity and perhaps a slight advantage in jobs. The emerging GOP machine, however, is premised on a unity of interests between party and industry, which means the GOP can ask for–and demand–total loyalty.
With thin Republican majorities in the House and Senate, a market for Democratic lobbyists remains, and traditional bipartisan lobbying firms still thrive. But increasingly, the trade associations and their corporate representatives–those firms run by Republicans–are the beneficiaries of Washington’s new spoils system. And like Mayor Daley’s ward supervisors, they are expected to display total loyalty. “These guys come downtown thinking that they owe their job to somebody on the Hill or the influence that somebody brought to bear for them, and they think it’s their primary function, in addition to working for the entities they’ve joined, to sustain the relationship between the Hill and themselves,” says Vic Fazio, a top Democratic lobbyist and former congressman from California. “They rationalize it by saying it’s good for the old boss and the new one, too.”
Day-to-day, the most trusted lobbyists–like those who attend Santorum’s meetings–serve as commissars, providing the leadership with eyes and ears as well as valuable advice and feedback. And generally, placing party surrogates atop trade associations makes them more responsive to the party’s needs. However, the K Street strategy also provides the GOP with a number of specific advantages. From a machine perspective, such jobs are far more useful than appointive positions in the executive branch. Private sector work has none of government’s downside. Political machines thrive on closed-door decision-making; on K Street, there’s no other kind. Neither are trade associations subject to inspector generals or congressional oversight; there are no rules against whom you can meet with, no reporters armed with FOIAs. These jobs also make for better patronage. Whereas a deputy undersecretary might earn $140,000, a top oil lobbyist can make $400,000. Controlling K Street also helps Republicans accumulate political talent. Many ex-Clintonites who might have wanted top lobbying positions couldn’t get them, and so left Washington for posts at universities, corporations, and foundations elsewhere. But the GOP, able to dole out the most desirable jobs, has kept more of its best people in Washington, where they can be hauled out for government or campaign work like clubs in a golf bag.
But jobs and campaign contributions are just the tip of the iceberg. Control a trade association, and you control the considerable resources at its disposal. Beginning in the 1990s, Washington’s corporate offices and trade associations began to resemble miniature campaign committees, replete with pollsters and message consultants. To supplement PAC giving, which is limited by federal election laws, corporations vastly increased their advocacy budgets, with trade organizations spending millions of dollars in soft money on issue ad campaigns in congressional districts. And thanks to the growing number of associations whose executives are beholden to DeLay or Santorum, these campaigns are increasingly put in the service of GOP candidates and causes. Efforts like the one PhRMA made on behalf of Bush’s Medicare plan have accompanied every major administration initiative. Many of them have been run out of the offices of top Republican lobbyists such as Ed Gillespie, whose recent elevation to chairman of the Republican National Committee epitomizes the new unity between party and K Street. Such is the GOP’s influence that it has been able to marshal on behalf of party objectives not just corporate lobbyists, but the corporations themselves. During the Iraq war, for instance, the media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications Inc. had its stations sponsor pro-war rallies nationwide (a few affiliates even banned the Dixie Chicks, who had criticized Bush, from their play lists). Likewise, last spring Norquist and the White House convinced a number of corporations and financial services firms to lobby customers to support Bush’s dividends tax cut. Firms like General Motors and included flyers touting the plan with dividends checks mailed to stockholders; Morgan Stanley included a letter from its CEO with the annual report it mailed to millions of customers.
Although this arrangement is intended to mutually benefit the GOP and the businesses who support it, in practice, the new Republican machine must balance the needs of K Street with the interests of the party. Sometimes that requires the GOP to take positions that it knows will be unpopular with voters or open the party up to criticism from the press. Shortly after Bush took office, at the behest of business groups, congressional Republicans summarily tossed out a set of ergonomics standards that Bush’s father had sent wending through the rule-making process a decade earlier. Similarly, in June, Republican-appointed commissioners on the Federal Communications Commission–bowing to the wishes of large broadcasters and newspaper chains–dumped 50-year-old federal regulations on media ownership, causing a wave of public anger. And while it’s not uncommon for lobbyists to have a hand in writing legislation on the Hill, the Bush administration has sometimes shifted the locus of executive policy making so far towards K Street that Bush’s own appointees are cut out of the process. While environmental groups complained loudly about being excluded from meetings of Dick Cheney’s energy task force, Bush’s own energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, was barely involved. As Public Citizen pointed out in a February 2003 letter to Congress, Joseph Kelliher, a senior advisor to Abraham and his point man on the task force, didn’t write white papers or propose ideas of his own, but merely solicited suggestions from a cross-section of energy lobbyists and passed them on to the White House, where they were added to the task force’s recommendations nearly verbatim. Top administration officials then handed the package down to the House, where it was approved almost unaltered.
But the flip side of the deal is that trade associations and corporations are expected to back the party’s initiatives even on occasions when doing so is not in their own best interest. When Bush’s recently passed dividends tax cut proposal was first announced, the life insurance industry complained that the bill would sharply reduce the tax advantage of annuities sold by insurance companies, potentially costing them hundreds of millions of dollars. The industry’s lobbyists were told to get behind the president’s proposal anyway–or lose any chance to plead their case. So they did. In mid-March, Frank Keating, the head of the industry’s trade group and a close friend of Bush’s, hand-delivered a letter to the White House co-signed by nearly 50 CEOs, endorsing the president’s proposal while meekly raising the hope that taxes on dividends from annuities would also be included in the final repeal (which they weren’t). Those firms that didn’t play ball on Bush’s pan paid the price. The Electronic Industries Alliance was one of the few big business lobbies that declined to back the tax cut, in large part because the high-tech companies that make up a good portion of its membership don’t even issue dividends. As a result, the trade group was frozen out of all tax discussions at the White House. The final bill reflected the ability of the GOP machine to pass legislation largely on its own terms: Whereas Reagan’s 1981 tax bill was a Christmas tree of special breaks, Bush’s was relatively clean, mainly benefiting wealthy individuals and small businesses, as the administration had intended.
Positively K Street
If you read The Washington Post last spring, you might have come across what seemed, on the surface, to be just another small beer scandal. This one involved Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio), who heads the House Committee on Financial Services. Late last year, Oxley was set to launch an investigation of pricing practices in the mutual fund industry. But in December, one of his staffers allegedly let it be known that Oxley might go easy on the mutual funds if their trade group, the Investment Company Institute (ICI), pushed out its Democratic chief lobbyist, Julie Domenick. The Post‘s reporting caused a minor uproar; the House Ethics Committee briefly considered an investigation. The press coverage, however, never made clear why a powerful committee chairman like Oxley would risk his career over one job on K Street.
What explains Oxley’s decision is the same thing that explains why the Bush administration would risk angering voters by attempting to privatize Medicare: The GOP needs K Street’s muscle for long-term ideological projects to remake the national government. For years, conservatives have been pushing to divert part of Social Security into private investment accounts. Such a move, GOP operatives argued, would provide millions of new customers and potentially trillions of dollars to the mutual fund industry that would manage the private accounts. The profits earned would, of course, be shared with the GOP in the form of campaign contributions. In other words, by sluicing the funds collected by the federal government’s largest social insurance program through businesses loyal to the GOP, the party would instantly convert the crown jewels of Democratic governance into a pillar of the new Republican machine. But to make the plan a reality, the GOP needed groups like the ICI to get behind the idea–by funding pro-privatization think tanks, running issue ads attacking anti-privatization Democrats, and so on. The ICI, however, had always been lukewarm to privatization, for which conservatives blamed Domenick. Hence, the GOP machine decided she had to go. In the end, to quell the Oxley scandal, Domenick was allowed to keep her job. But ICI hired a former general counsel to Newt Gingrich to work alongside her, and the GOP’s campaign to get K Street behind Social Security privatization continues.
If the GOP is willing to be aggressive enough, even the federal payroll can become a source of patronage. Recently, as part of Bush’s “competitive sourcing” initiative, the Interior Department announced that over half of the Park Service’s 20,000 jobs could be performed by private contractors; according to the Post, administration officials have already told the service’s senior managers to plan on about one-third of their jobs being outsourced. (Stay tuned for “Yosemite: A division of Halliburton Corporation.”) But the Park Service is only the beginning. Bush has proposed opening up 850,000 federal jobs–about half of the total–to private contractors. And while doing so may or may not save taxpayers much money, it will divert taxpayer money out of the public sector and into private sector firms, where the GOP has a chance to steer contracts towards politically connected firms.
Anyone who doubts this eventuality need look no further than Florida. There, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out last year, Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, has outsourced millions of dollars worth of work formerly performed by government employees to private contractors. There’s little evidence that doing so has improved state services, as the governor’s own staff admits. But it has vastly improved the financial state of the Florida Republican Party. According to an investigation by The Miami Herald last fall, “[t]he policy has spawned a network of contractors who have given [Bush], other Republican politicians, and the Florida GOP millions of dollars in campaign donations.”
The New Spoils System
The Bush brothers would not be the first political family to turn government contracts into a source of political power. When the current mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, won his father’s old job 14 years ago, civil service reform had already wrecked the old system of bureaucratic patronage. So the new mayor began to farm out government services to private contractors, many of which returned the favor by donating generously to Daley’s reelection campaigns. Today, Daley dominates Chicago politics almost as thoroughly as did his father. Like his father, Daley has used his power, in part, to improve city services voters care about, from better schools to the flower beds lining Lake Shore Drive. By contrast, the fruits of today’s Republican machine–tax cuts and deregulation–have been enjoyed mainly by corporations and upper-income voters, while federal services, from college aid to environmental protection, are getting scaled back.
Indeed, it’s striking how openly and unapologetically Bush and his party have allied themselves with corporations and the wealthy. The rhetoric of compassion aside, no one who pays attention to what goes on in Washington could have much doubt as to where the Bush administration’s priorities lie. If the economy doesn’t improve or unemployment continues to get worse, the GOP may find it’s not such an advantage to be seen catering so enthusiastically to monied interests. But most Republicans seem confident that the strength they gain by harnessing K Street will be enough to muscle through the next election–so confident, in fact, that Bush, breaking with conventional electoral wisdom, has eschewed tacking to the political center late in his term. And if the GOP can prevail at the polls in the short term, its nascent political machine could usher in a new era of one-party government in Washington. As Republicans control more and more K Street jobs, they will reap more and more K Street money, which will help them win larger and larger majorities on the Hill. The larger the Republican majority, the less reason K Street has to hire Democratic lobbyists or contribute to the campaigns of Democratic politicians, slowly starving them of the means by which to challenge GOP rule. Already during this cycle, the Republicans’ campaign committees have raised about twice as much as their Democratic counterparts. So far, the gamble appears to be paying off.
It wouldn’t be the first time. A little over a century ago, William McKinley–Karl Rove’s favorite president–positioned the Republican Party as a bulwark of the industrial revolution against the growing backlash from agrarian populists, led by Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. The new business titans flocked to McKinley’s side, providing him with an extraordinary financial advantage over Bryan. McKinley’s victory in 1896 ushered in a long period of government largely by and for industry (interrupted briefly, and impermanently, by the Progressive Era). But with vast power came, inevitably, arrogance and insularity. By the 1920s, Republican rule had degenerated into corruption and open larceny–and a government that, in the face of rapidly growing inequality and fantastic concentration of wealth and opportunity among the fortunate few, resisted public pressure for reform. It took a few more years, and the Great Depression, for the other shoe to drop. But in 1932 came the landslide election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the founding of the very structure of governance today’s Republicans hope to dismantle. Who knows? History may yet repeat itself.