The K Street Project

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In the wake of Tom DeLay's announcement that he will resign from Congress, commentators of all stripes have been close to unanimous in criticizing him for his lead role in the K Street Project. This was the attempt to get trade organizations and large corporations to hire Republicans as lobbyists. When Republicans took control of the House after the 1994 elections, DeLay and supporters like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform noted that the lobbying community was heavily Democratic.

This had been true since the days when smart young New Dealers like Tommy Corcoran, James Rowe, Thurman Arnold, Abe Fortas, and Clark Clifford (a Truman man, not an FDR man) hung out their shingles as Washington lawyers. DeLay and Norquist believed that the lobbying community (aka K Street) was systematically (a) supporting Democrats with campaign contributions and (b) skewing its advice to its clients in the direction of Democratic public policy.

I'd like to weigh in against the critics of the K Street Project. Yes, it looked unseemly. The Republicans went ballistic after the Electronics Industry Alliance (I think I've got that name right) hired former Democratic Rep. Dave McCurdy as its top D.C. guy; critics said, gee, that's unfair, McCurdy is a talented and decent guy (an opinion with which I'd concur), and gee, people shouldn't discriminate on the basis of party. And so forth and so on.

To which my response is: Hey, that's life in the big city. DeLay and Norquist were right in saying that K Street was skewing public policy toward the Democrats, just as old media have been skewing public opinion toward the Democrats. If you want to affect public policy over the long term, you need to change institutions so that they don't skew public policy to the other side. The process isn't pretty, and I think DeLay and Norquist were ill-advised to be as open as they were about what they were doing. But I don't think it's any more illegitimate than other kinds of partisan hardball (like partisan gerrymandering, which is legitimate if it is done legally, whether by Texas Democrat Martin Frost or Texas Republican Tom DeLay).

Yes, there are downside risks—that you'll be taken captive by the lobbyists you create, that they will skew public policy toward their interests rather than toward the interests of your party or the broader public it seeks to represent, that you will attract in the ranks of your staff self-seekers who will betray you as some of Tom DeLay's staffers have. These were risks that were taken by Democratic politicians who cooperated with the creation of a Democratic K Street (think Lyndon Johnson) and by Tom DeLay, and these politicians paid a price. But I don't think the project of trying to shape K Street in your party's direction is inherently illegitimate.

Footnote: Take a look at Bob Novak's excellent valedictory on DeLay, "the most effective legislator of his time."