A ghost town called K Street

    The canyon is
    deserted and motionless, except for a chill wind whipping in from the
    west that is sending a few stray tumbleweeds tumbling along the valley
    bottom.

    The tumbleweeds are bouncing along the concrete canyon floor, along the
    double-yellow line up the middle, across the empty crosswalks _ a
    desolate journey witnessed only by the canyon’s glass-and-steel walls.

    Today this lifeless canyon is surely nature’s most unnatural place. But
    once it teemed with life forms. It was known as K Street, and its
    inhabitants were cunning and resourceful predators _ a species known as
    “lobbyists.”

    Back then, K Street was Washington’s Factory Row.
    Behind those glass-and-steel walls were sweatshops where overpaid
    lawyers worked ungodly hours churning out Washington’s only
    manufactured product: Loopholes.

    Then, faster than you could say
    “Jack Abramoff,” Darwinism happened. It began when bright lights were
    shined up and down K Street. Some claimed the news media shined them,
    others say federal prosecutors did it first. But the key is that
    lobbyists are light-sensitive creatures _ as are those in a related
    phylum known as “congressmen” (see also: congresswomen, senators,
    presidential aides, Cabinet officials, et al.).

    When the bright
    lights were turned on, K Street’s machines were turned off. From inside
    the inner sancta of K Street’s glass-and-steel walls _ from inside the
    factories, fine restaurants and watering holes _ lobbyists and
    politicians came running out. They used their upper extremities to
    cover their faces _ perhaps to shield their eyes from the light,
    perhaps to shield their identities from your eyes.

    Then they
    were out of sight. Senators and congresspersons fled to their safe
    harbors on Capitol Hill. They began pumping out press releases
    proclaiming shock and outrage at the misbehavior of the lobbyists and
    proposing all sorts of reforms they guaranteed would make it impossible
    for lobbyists to do again what they’d always done.

    With one
    exception: While members of Congress proclaimed newfound zeal to ban
    the lobbyists from buying or renting them by wining or dining or
    junketing them to fun-in-the-sun places, they continue to let answer
    their telephones. Which means congressional Republicans and Democrats
    can continue their daily ritual: Dialing for dollars.

    So
    senators and congresspersons continued telephoning lobbyists from
    special interests regulated by committees on which they served _ and
    asking these lobbyists, whose fates they control, for thousands of
    dollars in campaign money. That’s right _ politicians who banned
    themselves from accepting a steak dinner from a lobbyist didn’t dare
    close the loophole that would prevent them from soliciting $5,000 for a
    primary election _ plus another $5,000 if they had a runoff, and
    another $5,000 for the general election. At the other end of the phone,
    lobbyists figured they had to pay this money to guarantee they’d get
    access to the senator or congressperson when an issue affecting their
    special interest was before the member’s committee that held the power
    to provide or end the special interest’s special privilege. Yes,
    members of Congress have often admitted that, at a minimum, they give
    special interests access in exchange for money.

    Which is why the
    news media need to start finally using the right word for this money:
    It is not a “contribution” _ it is an “investment.” A special interest
    invests money in a politician for the same reason it invests in
    anything _ because it expects a huge return on its investment.
    Political investments provide the biggest windfall profit of all. A few
    thousand dollars invested in an influential politician can reap
    hundreds of millions in profits in the form of subsidies, tax
    write-offs or deferrals or look-the-other-ways.

    That is why,
    long after Abramoff has departed the scene and Tom DeLay was derailed,
    Washington’s de facto legal solicitation of bribes remains legal.

    But you may be asking: If K Street is now desolate, populated only by
    tumbling tumbleweeds, who are the senators and congresspersons
    telephoning for their still-legal shakedown?

    Answer: They are
    calling the same lobbyists they always called. Being cunning and
    resourceful, the lobbyists figured K Street was giving them a bad name.
    So they moved on, to a higher-rent street even closer to the Capitol.
    We haven’t found them yet, but the members of Congress _ being equally
    cunning and resourceful _ have. So the game goes on.

    And that is
    what proves, beyond a doubt, that the survival of the lobbyists and
    politicians is a matter of Darwinism, not faith-based Intelligent
    Design. Clearly, both species thrived because they have the same
    survival-of-the-fittest instinct: Let us prey.

    (Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)