How to buy a Senator…or a President

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.

He’s lying.

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.


  1. CheckerboardStrangler

    Electrification for private automobiles, plus the rebuilding of intra-urban light passenger commuter rail, plus scaling back the meat component in the American diet, plus solarization of residential electricity production.

    That’s about sixty to seventy percent right there.
    Now add the mid-America wind corridor and nuclear.

  2. Warren

    OK. So…………………

    I (we) would love to hear, from an insider, what to do about it. It’s a huge problem, but the solutions aren’t clear. Many of those proposed run afoul of the first amendment. The cures mostly seem worse than the disease. Would you, as an insider, consider doing an upcoming rant on a solution?



  3. kmvjbl

    I am well aware of how the Realtor organization works being in the industry and working for associations within the Realtor family. You’re singling out John McCain and referencing the 1980’s. EVERYONE did this, Democrats and Republicans alike. I’m sure if Obama was in office before all of the restrictions were put in place, he would have done the same thing. I’m also certain that Obama takes just as much money from lobbyists as McCain. They’re claiming they’re reformers but both are willingly to accept donations — unless you’re independetly wealthy like Gov. Corzine, it’s hard to play the game to get re-elected if you’re the only one NOT taking PAC donations and your opponents and everyone else IS.


  4. Janice

    Hear hear!

    And why can’t we live simply and reduce our oil consumption by 80%, like many European countries do? … Time to tell the bankers to shove it.

    It is time for a paradigm shift in how we exist in America. We do not need to be gluttonous in everything we do. And we sure do not need to go shopping as our notorious mis-leader Bush told us to after 9/11. Now, that’s the way to pull the country together to fight terrorists – go frigging shopping! Look where that has gotten us.

    It’s time we stop letting the neo-cons lead us around by the wallet and stop being the quintessential fools of the world. Things are changing and we need to open our eyes to the realities we can not – and should not – ignore. Life ain’t the way it used to be anymore, and we either adjust and take the lead – or fall by the wayside.

    If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.
    Mark Twain

  5. DejaVuAllOver

    Well said, Janice. We have always been a welfare state for bankers. Our brand of capitalism teaches us that growth is always good. Without a growing economy, bankers can’t charge interest. But the non-capitalist world has done just fine with little or no growth for thousands of years. And lets face it, growth is a huge problem at this point in the game. Banks are desperately trying to find a cash cow, since their last one, the real-estate bubble, failed their speculators miserably and now we need to bail them out of their depravity and corruption. And why can’t we live simply and reduce our oil consumption by 80%, like many European countries do? Simple. Growth demands rampant consumption, generally speaking.

    Time to tell the bankers to shove it. Especially since so many of them are neocons who view endless war(s) as good for their greedy little paws. If you want to read a great prophecy on the inherent corruption and decadence of capitalism, read “Das Kapital” by Marx, his last major book and certainly his best. The guy nailed (and explained) this whole mess 130 years ago. Which is probably why conservatives hate him so much. When you’re as wrong as often as conservatives are, intelligent people are the enemy.

  6. AustinRanter

    Isn’t it strange…

    Doug’s article title just defined the inner workings of our government.

    In essences, the average person is just a setting duck, a sucker waiting to be swindled by a city council person, a state representative, a congressional member, a president, and all in between. This list of political folks, in many cases, could possibly hold the power of life and death, and maybe even as bad, the ability to have any one of us incarcerated for not paying off any one of these hungry and demanding political entities to continue to abuse us via what they call taxes.

    The rich can’t survive without the poor. Government as we know it can’t survive without the ignorant. Shame, dirty damn shame.

    “KEITH”…your posting is on the money. But, then again, it’s probably to abstract of a perspective for a lot of folks. We are a nation who has been trained well to point the finger of blame in a direction other than the one it needs to be pointed. The “pointing fingers game” is part of our training. It’s included in the chapter called “diversion training”. Politicians and government heads are masters at training the public to look in other directions. The more ignorant we are…the more we look where they tell us to look.

    There’s not a crooked seat filled at any post in our government that the public can deny responsibility for. We the People have the power to demand something more than a claim of responsibility. We have to demand accountability in the same way private citizens are held to.

    If there’s no consequence for bad behaviors…then why stop? Nobody knows that better than our government, elected, appointed, or hired employees.

    The really sad thing is…the richest of the rich and of course wealthy corporations and associations much like the National Realtors who buy our government leaders and employees…are every bit as guilty as our government. They are co-conspirators. When favors or money is traded in either direction…I say, “It’s jail time.”

    Soooo, is ignorance bliss, as they say?

  7. Janice

    Unchecked Capitalism is another name for robber barons. What we have now is corporate welfare or corporate socialism. It’s disgusting. Those who need and deserve it least are the ones this corrupt backward not of the people government is pandering to. They will not provide universal health care or do anything to improve the educational system for our kids, but bend over to throw more funny money at the failing investment firms because they were completely mismanaged and corrupted, all on the back of we the American taxpayer. Personally, if I’m going to be put into debt for billions, I would much rather the debt goes for the good of the millions of American, rather than to bail out a few greedy crooks.

  8. CheckerboardStrangler

    Thank you Doug.
    It needed to be said and it needs to be read by as many people as possible.

  9. jbaspen

    Doug, I May Intensely Disagree With Your Opinions, but I will ALWAYS admire your hard-won courage!

    I wouldn’t walk on the same side of the street as the porcine-faced Phil Gramm, but this is Mc Cain’s closest economic advisor! The father of Glass-Steagal repeal, commodities deregulation, and soulmate of the late Ken Lay. He is VICE-Chairman of UBS, currently walking the financial gang-plank and looking for a handout from the Swiss Goverment!

    Let’s face it, Mc Cain has made himself almost bulletproof because of his P.O.W. status. I’d argue that the grunt/riflemen had it a helluva a lot worse. But many Americans give POWs almost mythical status.

    Thanks for being among the handful of American writers willing to take this phony on!

  10. sherry

    Yes Janice, I especially appreciated the bail out of JP Morgan Chase which is a Rockefeller company, as is EXXON.
    It would seem to me the Rockefeller family has considerably more money than the taxpayers. Exxon made more money in the last quarter than any company in history and that is OK. It is capitalism. Yet when JP loses their shirt over poor lending practices, it is my responsibility to bail them out as a taxpayer. So are we capitialists or socialists?

  11. Janice

    Personally, I can’t wait until I am out of debt on my house – but for the duration, I sure do appreciate the deduction.

    I can not imagine a 50 year mortgage – that is insane, as are the interest only loans. I guess, for some folks, that made sense during the housing boom if they were turning their homes quickly and taking the profits.. but I think the finance companies used them to target the people who never should have gotten homes in the first place. More predatory lending practices. Isn’t it nice that WE are bailing these companies out of the the mess they created?! I sure wish the government would bail me out of the loss my husband has on his last business because of misplaced trust. Personally, I say let the financial institutions fail – they made their beds, now sleep in them. Of course, I admit I do not understand the economy or finances on this scale – but I do know right from wrong – and it’s wrong for the taxpayer to bare the burden of hundreds of billions in additional debt because of greedy dishonest people.

  12. Janice

    I see. It makes sense now. That would raise the income from taxes a lot. Seems a rather dishonest way of working government, though. Citizens enter into a contract with the understanding that the interest they pay is deductable, and plan for that. Then the government changes the rules in mid-game, and the people are hosed (so to speak). I think the government should be forced to balance it’s budget, just like you and I do (or should). Maybe they would end this war and all the other pork, subsidies, and other frivilous expenses if they were held accountable.

  13. gazelle1929


    To raise taxes without being seen doing it. Do you remember when consumer interest was tax deductible? I certainly do, but that was back in the days when national policy was to encourage such borrowing because it was good for the economy. Now such borrowing is competing with the SS’s need to borrow money to run the country in the style to which they have become accustomed, either that or into the ground.

  14. sherry

    Janice, the interest deduction is a seduction of sorts. I could never understand why people would be so willing to spend $3 in interest in order to save a dollar in taxes.
    This deduction convinces people they need to stay in debt. And they do.
    It makes them buy more than they need, more than they can
    afford. California now offers 50 year mortgages which is almost an interest only loan. Don’t get me started on interest only loans.
    While it looks like a good thing for the consumer, at the end of the day, it isn’t.

  15. Janice

    Just curious.. Why was a member of the House Ways and Means Committee putting the mortgage interest deductibility on the table? I know I love my interest deduction, and I am curious why ending it was being considered? What was behind this move that was countered by Doug?

    If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.
    Mark Twain

  16. Charlie Couser


    Did the realtor lobby ever help the McCains acquire any of their multi-million dollar homes? If so, which ones?

    What other pieces of real estate do the McCains own at the expense of the American tax payer?

    This corrupt old Bush sycophant needs to be stopped and now!

    Charlie Couser