Official Washington is officially aghast at the brazen, tape-recorded revelations of Illinois Gov. Rod (Show Me the Money) Blagojevich’s alleged “pay for play” politics.
On your local newscasts, you can catch your local senators and representatives in the act of being duly appalled that he allegedly dared try this shakedown on something as sacrosanct as a U.S. Senate seat.
But you will have a far harder time catching your senators and representatives in the act of another little thing that they do almost daily. It is dialing for dollars. It is just another form of “pay for play” politics.
It is, in effect, a legalized shakedown of special-interest lobbyists by your elected senators and representatives. (Of course, “shakedown” isn’t the term they use.) It is a big part of the way Washington really works.
Just about every day on Capitol Hill, senators and representatives leave their official Senate and House offices and go to special nearby offices that are not paid for by taxpayers, but by Democratic or Republican campaign committees. (Why? Because it is illegal to use government facilities for soliciting campaign money.) In these privately paid offices, your senators and representatives are handed lists of names and telephone numbers of the lobbyists for special interests that are regulated by the committees and subcommittees on which these members of Congress serve.
The senators and representatives telephone the lobbyists. They tell the lobbyists they have to pay off big debts from their last campaign - or they are facing a tough opponent in the next election - and they need a campaign contribution of, say, $10,000.
Timeout. Let’s see how this is looking from the other end of the telephone line.
We are now in the office of a lobbyist for a big-industry special interest. He has gotten this phone call from a senator who chairs a subcommittee that can be crucial to this industry. First, the lobbyist does not miss the irony (see also: duplicity) in the laws governing what is taking place. The senators and representatives have righteously banned themselves from accepting a steak dinner that is paid for by this lobbyist. But Congress carefully kept it legal for a senator or representative to ask (and sometimes demand) $10,000 in campaign money from this same lobbyist.
Now, the lobbyist has no immediate legislative problem that requires help from this senator. But he knows that something is sure to come up in the future - and when it does, he’ll need to meet with this senator or a top staff member to make a pitch for help - maybe a clause in an amendment, maybe a telephone call to urge an agency regulator (whose budget is also controlled by this committee) to ease up.
All the players know the game: When campaign money is solicited, a specific quid pro quo is not discussed; that would be illegal. But all players know that campaign money ultimately buys access. And that’s when the specifics are discussed.
“It is like when you ante up at a poker game,” one leading Washington industry lobbyist told me. “You do it not because you know you will have great cards coming. You do it just so you can stay in the game to see a few cards.”
So when the senator calls, the lobbyist knows there is only one smart choice: Pay to play, Washington style.
Many months later, a loophole will be quietly stitched (undiscovered by you, unless someone snitched). It will give the lobbyist’s special interest a tax-break waiver or regulatory look-the-other-way. The industry will keep many millions that otherwise would wind up in the U.S. Treasury. All it cost was perhaps a few dozen of those well-spent $10,000 campaign gifts. The law calls it a legal contribution. The lobbyist knows what it really is: a smart business investment.
Martin Schram is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.