It's All For Sale at the Big Potomac Bazaar

FRED BARNES AND RACHEL FLICK WILDAVSKY

January 21, 1993|By FRED BARNES AND RACHEL FLICK WILDAVSKY

Even baby-food manufacturers now bankroll Washington. LastJanuary, Gerber Products Company learned that baby food was in desperately short supply in the former Soviet Union. The company proposed to the Agriculture Department that its products be included in the U.S. aid package. But its bid went nowhere.

The stakes were high: Someday the republics would buy their own baby food; and they would probably choose the brand they had come to know through U.S. aid.

So the company hired a lobbying firm to press its case, and a Gerber executive traveled to Washington weekly. The result: a second aid bill that pointed to ''the nutritional needs of infants such as processed baby food,'' paving the way for U.S. taxpayers to send Gerber products to Russia.

Gerber, like many other companies, had learned a lesson about political influence in our nation's capital.

Once Washington had only a handful of power brokers. Then, starting with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, federal spending skyrocketed and with it federal regulation.

Drawn by the expanding government, thousands of corporations, trade associations, unions and issue groups opened offices in Washington. To serve them, a plethora of lobbyists, lawyers, political consultants, public-relations specialists and information brokers set up shop.

Together, these new Washingtonians have created an ingrown world, where insiders of both political parties take care of themselves and each other, crowding out ordinary taxpayers. The only outsiders who stand a chance are those who can afford to hire the right help with the right contacts.

For insiders, the path to high-dollar law and lobbying starts with a government job.

No one is as ''inside'' in Washington as a former congressman -- and many choose to stay for that reason. Marty Russo lost his House seat and his membership on the powerful Ways and Means Committee in a Democratic primary last spring. But the bitterness of defeat was quickly sweetened by signing on as a vice chairman of the lobbying firm Cassidy & Associates. To avoid transgressing laws that bar him from lobbying former colleagues his first year out, his initial assignment was to run Cassidy's Chicago office. Still, his boss, Gerald Cassidy, told the newspaper Legal Times, ''when Congress is in session, Marty's going to be in Washington.''

In the realm of opportunities, no group does as well as Washington lawyers. The 3,952 attorneys of the city's top 20 firms, whose work is mostly government-related, generated $1.4 billion in revenues in 1991, according to Legal Times. At Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, lawyers averaged a gross of $650,000.

One of the biggest moneymakers is Robert Strauss, a former Democratic National Chairman and U.S. ambassador to Russia. In 1990 Mr. Strauss' law firm made $8 million in fees from Hollywood's MCA Inc. Mr. Strauss himself represented MCA's merger with the Japanese corporation Matsushita. In the ultimate insider's triumph, he was paid by both sides in that deal.

Also in the big money is the law firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow, which includes super lobbyist Thomas H. Boggs among its partners. During the Reagan and Bush years, the firm prospered (1991 revenues: $49.5 million), with clients ranging from the Association of Trial Lawyers to the government of Abu Dhabi. During the Clinton administration revenues should go through the roof. Partner Ron Brown was chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the campaign and then nominated for commerce secretary.

No wonder the Greater Washington Board of Trade boasts that ''Greater Washington is one of America's richest markets.''

President Clinton has pledged to make senior officials in his administration wait five years after leaving government before they lobby the offices where they worked. But more must be done.

* Require complete, clear and timely disclosure of who paid what to whom. Disclosure laws for candidates for public office are inadequate. As a result, financial information about candidates and lobbyists is filed in several places; it's hard to decipher, frequently out of date and often incomplete. It should be spelled out clearly, collected in one location and made to account for every dime.

* Close the soft-money loophole. While corporations and labor groups can't finance candidates, they can finance candidates' parties -- and often do with six-digit checks. The parties then spend the money on the candidates' behalf, circumventing the spirit of the law. To stop this, corporate and labor contributions to political parties must be banned.

* A clean politician starts with a clean campaign. Last year, professional lobbyists occupied high-level positions in both the Bush and Clinton campaigns. To assure that winners have not sold their offices before they assume them, campaigns should be lobby-free zones.

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, Mr. Clinton pledged to ''break the stranglehold the special interests have on our elections and the lobbyists have on our government.'' It's a good pledge, but keeping it won't be easy.

If President Clinton wants fundamental reform, he'll need to tackle the underlying problem: the scope and clout of the federal government. As long as Washington lawmakers have the power to make or break causes, industries and fortunes, special interests will flood the capital with their money.

Washington is for sale because, with a government as big as ours, there is way too much to buy.

Fred Barnes and Rachel Flick Wildavsky are journalists. This article is taken from a longer piece in the February issue of the Reader's Digest.

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