Today's Washington Post has a story entitled "Nearly two dozen congressional fundraisers held at D.C. Springsteen shows last year", which reports right from the nexus of politics, influence-peddling and luxury entertainment for lawmakers. Right on the front page, even! But there's something that sets this piece apart from the stories of lobbyists and fundraisers that typically pervade the Post: it's actually critical! It's not a fawning, anthropological look at K Street at all!
Naturally, this is because it's not a piece written by the Washington Post. It's actually by ProPublica reporters Marcus Stern and Sebastian Jones, who to the best of my recollection, have never hatched a scheme to raise revenue by agreeing to host fancy dinner parties where their editors introduce lobbyists to lawmakers, over chocolate fondue, like the Washington Post has!
After several rounds of campaign finance reform, the events remain legal, including renting boxes from special interest groups. The only difference is that the corporations and lobbyists don't provide boxes for free, as they sometimes did before the Abramoff scandal. Instead, they often contribute to the lawmakers' campaign committees or leadership PACs, which then pay for the event cost.
Last year, at least 108 congressional fundraisers were held at Washington's three premier sports and entertainment venues, according to invitations obtained by the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit agency devoted to government transparency. The true number might be higher because most invitations are never made public.
Because these events are usually kept private, it's impossible to determine who rubbed shoulders with the politicians or how much money was raised. ProPublica pieced together information about the Springsteen concerts from campaign finance reports filed by the interest groups and the lawmakers, archived party invitations and interviews with the handful of congressional offices and businesses that responded to questions.
Lawmakers and lobbyists insist that legislative decisions aren't made at these events. But congressional observers say the nighttime fundraising and socializing inevitably influences congressional work.
See! It's almost as if this journalism is making these crass circle-jerks out to be a bad thing! Whereas, here's how the Post typically treats these matters.
The chairman beams.
So many people just dying to see him, the business guys, the pols, the lobbyists -- lots and lots of lobbyists. They circle Charlie Rangel -- birthday boy, Democrat and, of course, House Ways and Means chairman -- circles like rings on a tree planted in the party room here at Tavern on the Green. Simple math: the more powerful the pol, the more rings on the tree. This is a very thick tree.
Not a problem, though, for Heather Podesta.
"It's like doing the tango!" she says, all smiles yet all business.
The lobbyist tango: She glides right in her red D&G heels and her periwinkle stockings, cutting through the outer rings with a smile here, a kiss-kiss there, a "Great to see you!" or two. Some guy yells out: "The most beautiful woman in the world!" She doesn't blush, and she doesn't linger. She wriggles left, gets blocked, reverses direction, gets blocked again, reverses direction again. She's in.
"Great party!" Podesta tells the chairman.
"Isn't it wonderful?" Rangel gushes back.
Fun fact! Months after Heather Podesta (whom the Post describes, Tiger Beat-ingly as "The It Girl of a New Generation Of Lobbyists.") danced the suck-up tango with Charles Rangel, Rangel was forced to step down as the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee because of "mounting ethics woes". (For more on how the Podestas have ruined your hopes and dreams, with lobbying, click here.)
At the time, this article in the Post caused the Wall Street Journal's Thomas Frank to regurgitate in his mouth, just a little bit. He wrote:
Concerning public distaste for the influence-for-hire industry, Ms. Podesta comes across as refreshingly flippant. According to the Post, she wore an ironic "scarlet L" to last year's Democratic convention, apparently to laugh off last year's anti-lobbyist sentiment. She once issued an invitation to a fund-raiser promising a lunch that was supposed to consist of "the Select Committee on Intelligence for the first course followed by your choice of Appropriations, Judiciary or Rules committees"; the Post finds this "too cheeky."
But it's not just prudery or populist distaste for fancy risottos that turns the public against lobbying: It's the deep venality that makes possible jokes about senators being bought like lunches. It's the debasement of politics from a matter of persuasion to one of money and connections. And it's because the capital's main journalistic watchdog seems perfectly content to see politics made into a kind of financial transaction--so content, in fact, that the paper's publisher planned dinner salons that would apparently have put the Post itself on a partial pay-to-play footing.
Frank will probably digest ProPublica's article a little better. I mean, it's not going to make you any less cynical about lobbying. But at the very least, it won't make you any more cynical about journalism.
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