In 1987, I ran the Political Programs Division of the National Association of Realtors, the largest trade association in the country. One of my jobs was to serve as the association’s "go to" guy when they needed to sway the opinions of Congress.
One afternoon, Steve Driesler, Senior Vice President for Government Affairs, walked into my office.
"We’ve got a problem," he said. "A member of the House Ways and Means Committee told one of our lobbyists today that mortgage interest deductibility in on the table."
"On the table" meant the committee was considering reducing or even eliminating the ability of American homeowners to deduct the interest on their mortgages on their income taxes. Mortgage interest deductibility is, and continues to be, a bread and butter issue for the real estate industry.
"Don’t worry," I told Driesler. "I’ll take care of it."
We put together a series of radio ads to run over the next two weeks during morning and evening drive time radio in the districts of every Democratic and Republican member of the committee. Each one targeted that member.
For example: In Rep. Tom Downey’s district in New York, a solemn voiced announcer came on and said:
Did you know Congressman Tom Downey and his fellow members of Congress want to take away one of the main reasons you bought your home? That’s right. They want to do away with your right to deduct the interest you pay on your mortgage on your income taxes. We don’t think that’s a good idea and we bet you don’t either. If you don’t, why don’t you call Congressman Tom Downey and tell him to leave your mortgage interest alone.
The ad included a toll-free 800 number that people could call. They gave their zip code and the operator immediately connected them to their Congressman.
I pulled the campaign after just three days because Illinois Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, then chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, called Driesler into his office and said: "Call off your attack dogs. This sucker is dead."
It took just three days and $2.2 million to force Rostenkowski, then one of the most powerful members of Congress, to back down. The Realtors got their way because we had the largest political action committee (PAC) in town and we had no hesitation on spending money to exercise clout.
We bought access to the offices of virtually every member of Congress by showering them with maximum campaign contributions. Special friends got invites to our conventions in Hawaii where they were encouraged to bring their families and golf clubs.
One of the recipients of our "generosity" was a newly-elected Senator from Arizona: John McCain. He openly sought our support and campaign checks. We happily complied. McCain went into our files as a "friend" who would deliver when we called. We called often. He always delivered.
I could, and did, spend millions on "independent expenditure" campaigns to help put friends of the industry into office. My five years with the Realtors taught me a lot about the relationship between money and power. I could pick up the phone and be put through to any member of Congress. I was invited to private political briefings at the campaign committees of both parties and to private receptions at the White House.
For a while, I reveled in the power and loved the attention. The New York Times ran a front page feature about the Realtors’ clout along with a photo of me with a $50 haircut, $300 shirt, $200 suspenders and sitting in my office surrounded by television monitors that kept track of both C-Span channels and the news.
But the intoxication of power leaves a powerful hangover. This wasn’t government "of the people, by the people and for the people." It was government for sale to the highest bidder and we had the deepest pockets in town.
Special interest groups ran Washington during my days at the Realtors and they continue to run Washington today.
And John McCain’s Presidential campaign is littered with some of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington. If he is elected President, McCain won’t run things at 1600 Pennsylvania. The lobbyists and special interests they represent will be in charge.
McCain claims he’s going to put an end to special interest control of Washington.
The special interests control him. They always have and they always will. I know. I once owned a piece of John McCain. Didn’t cost that much. Corrupt members of Congress usually come cheap.