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

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

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.

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.)