From 1987 to1992, I could pick up my phone – or better yet have my secretary do the job – to call any member of Congress and be assured he or she would take the call personally.
A call to the White House assured instant contact with a senior official.
Did this access come from my background as a journalist or as the owner of Capitol Hill Blue? No way. It came because my position as vice president for political programs for the National Association of Realtors bought my way into the corridors of power in Washington.
As the association’s executive who oversaw the Realtors’ Political Action Committee and a multi-million dollar independent expenditures program that could pump unlimited funds into campaigns supporting candidates, I became someone with access and power from the day I took the job.
This unfettered access did not come from any interest of saving America or of serving “government of the people, by the people or for the people.” It came from serving only the interests of the leaders of the world’s largest trade association with – at the time – one of the largest PACs of the world.
During those five years, the schedule for many nights included stops at various fundraising events for incumbent members of Congress or those who wanted to become incumbents. All wanted access to our campaign cash box. Some wanted invitations to the Realtors’ annual conventions – usually held in resort locations like Hawaii – with the promise that the invite would include all-expenses paid for family members or girlfriends.
It was a heady time, filled with expense-account lunches and dinners at The Palm, flights around the country to motivate local Realtors to contribute more to the PAC and days spent concocting new ways to buy votes in the halls of Congress.
The Realtors employed an army of lobbyists who worked the Hill and government agencies. When an alarm went up, the political programs division went to work.
In 1988, Steve Driesler, then senior vice president and chief lobbyist, came into my office.
“We have a problem,” Driesler said. “The Ways & Means Committee is considering tampering with mortgage interest deductibility.”
Mortgage interest deductibility is dogma for Realtors. The ability to deduct the interest you pay on a home mortgage is a primary reason cited by Realtors for owning a home.
But Tom Downey of New York told one of the Realtor lobbyists that the Ways & Means Committee was considering reducing or eliminating the mortgage interest deduction.
“Don’t worry,” I told Driesler. “I’ll take care of it.”
Within a few hours, we booked drive-time radio spots in the district of every member of the Ways & Means Committee and went into the studio to produce 30-second spots with a solemn-voiced announcer saying:
Did you know Congress wants to eliminate one of the main reasons you bought your home? That’s right, your representative in Congress is considering taking away your right to deduct the interest you pay for your mortgage. We don’t think that’s a good idea and we’ll bet your don’t either. Call (phone number) and we will put you in touch with your Congressman so you can say “save my mortgage interest deduction.”
We set up a toll-free number. When someone called, operators asked for a zip code and then pushed a button to direct the call to the correct member of Congress.
Thousands of calls poured in. I booked two weeks of radio spots. After three days, Ways & Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski called Driesler into his office and said: “Call off your attack dogs. This sucker is dead.”
Was democracy served? No. Mortgage interest deductibility is a nice-sounding issue but studies show it is not high on a list of reasons why people buy homes. In fact, several nations with higher tax rates and which don’t allow deductions for mortgage interest have higher per capita rates of home ownership than the United States.
But it demonstrates the power that a special interest group with deep pockets can wield when it comes to manipulating public policy.
For five years, I was part of that cabal that controls Washington. It’s not something I’m proud of or list with pride on my resume. In fact, I’m ashamed of what I was and what I did.
Sadly, it’s not my only sin during a journey to the dark side of politics. It’s just one of many I must face as a recovering political manipulator.
Copyright 2012 Capitol Hill Blue