They roam the halls of power in Washington like jackals in a feeding frenzy — predators in Gucci loafers and $4,000 suits.
They are the lobbyists, political action committee managers and special interest group hired guns — America’s real ruling class.
They write the checks to secure support from members of Congress and they write the bills that emerge as laws and land on the President’s desk for signature.
The health care vote headed for a Senate vote next week is a document produced by the health care industry lobbyists — the same health care industry that is spending a million dollars a day to exert absolute control over the legislation.
The lobbyists who control the health care debate, along with others representing hundreds of special interests, control Congress, the White House and — through their checkbooks and legislation-writing lawyers — America.
For five years — 1987 through 1992 — I was part of America’s ruling class. As Vice President for Political Programs for the National Association of Realtors, (NAR) a trade association with 880,000 members, I supervised the nation’s largest political action committee.
During that period, NAR’s Government Operations Group employed a staff of 75 in its Washington office. Our lobbying staff included lawyers, former staff members from Congress and political professionals. Our political field operation sent operatives to every state in the country, teaching local Realtors how to organize at the grassroots level and exert influence on elected officials.
At a moment’s notice, we could put just about any money we wanted into a campaign to fight for an issue to benefit the real estate industry.
For example, shortly after I joined the NAR operation, the Senior Vice President and Chief Lobbyist, Steve Driesler, walked into my office to say “we’ve got a problem.”
“One of our lobbyists just spoke to Tom Downey. He says mortgage interest deductability is on the table.”
The ability of a homeowner to deduct mortgage interest on tax returns was — and is — a cornerstone issue for Realtors. Downey, a New York Congressman and member of the House Ways & Means Committee, said the committee would consider repealing that deduction to help balance the federal budget.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll take care of it.”
That afternoon, we went into the studio with a professional voice-over announcer to cut radio spots. I booked the spots in a saturation campaign on drive-time radio in the districts of every member of the Ways & Means Committee — Republican and Democrat. A couple of days later, people driving and from work in those districts heard a solemn voice say:
Did you know Congress is thinking about taking away one of the reasons you bought your home? That’s right. Congress wants to take away your right to deduct the interest you pay on your home mortgage on your tax return. We — your local Realtors — don’t think that is a good idea and we bet you don’t either. Help us stop this by contacting Congressman (name). Call (phone number) and we’ll put you in touch with him or her immediately.
The phone number we gave them was a call center set up by NAR. When someone called, the operator asked for their zip code and punched it into the computer. That information forwarded the call immediately to the office of their member of Congress.
I booked the campaign for two weeks. Three days into the campaign, Illinois Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, then chairman of the Ways & Means Committee, called Driesler to say: “Call off your dogs. This proposal is dead.”
In public statements, I would argue that protecting mortgage interest deductability was protecting the 55 million homeowners in the country but it was — in fact — a move to protect our members. Studies showed little real benefit to homeowners but those same studies said hyping deductability helped sell homes and that mean commissions for our members.
Scenarios like this play out every day in the halls of power in Washington. The American Medical Association, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the unions, the health care industry and others use money and the ability to manipulate public opinion to control members of Congress and craft legislation that helps their special interest even when it means more cost and hardships on ordinary Americans.
I left the Realtors in 1992 during one of the association’s periodic reorganizations. It would take years for me to come to grips with what I had become and to deal with the alcoholism that took over my life during that regrettable period.
But others were ready to take my place and become part of America’s ruling class — a class that today is more powerful than ever and more determine to control our government and our lives while serving their own, narrow, selfish special interests.