As the swamp floods, even lobbyists are drowning their sorrows
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As happy hour starts in Bullfeathers, there are still six workers with laptops set out along the long bar, and half the busy conversation is into phones. This is a watering hole for Washington lobbyists – “bullfeathers” was Teddy Roosevelt’s preferred substitute for “bullshit” – but even if you missed the entry-level cynicism of the name, the crowd still announces itself, the way it does everything else. Loudly. It’s not just the obnoxious accoutrements: the pants suits and execu-leisurewear, the acres of plaid, even a rare matching pen-and-tie-clip in the wild. It is the obliviating way these people drink.
Lobbying has been called the most despised profession in America, and it’s a close neighbour of many of the other untouchable castes: lawyers, journalists and politicians (some unlucky souls spend time in each of these circles of hell). Lobbyists, though – even politicians look down on them, and here they come to commiserate and douse their self-loathing with misty glasses of the awful house white. A grimacing barman called Kevin asks if I’d like to try some, pouring it sommelier-style into a plastic cup. It’s the colour of a failed urine test and as sweet as Scottish soft-drink, but the oil-men and defence contractors here drink it by the fridge.
Back when Trump was still campaigning, there were worries he might curb the excess of lobbying as part of his swamp-draining efforts. But his modest reforms were soon diluted by a deluge of new money – at least $US3.37 billion in 2017 alone, and by some estimates, more than $9 billion. One study found that firms availing themselves of this leverage enjoyed a 22,000% return from kickbacks or beneficial regulation. Legislation is proving harder to pass in this era though, and adding to the tension in Bullfeathers is uncertainty. In Washington, the new ethical environment is confused and subject to presidential caprice, and if the GOP loses the House in November, many of these people will lose their jobs as well.
They are also just out of the orbit of real influence. The current crop of Republicans, like their leader, prefers the trappings of power garish and obvious (I even caught a lobbyist at the front bar of the Trump International Hotel; “just being a cliché, in the lobby”, said the prim little man). Bullfeathers is some distance from that. “It’s more down to earth. It’s more real. You can find a real friend here, you know?” said a woman who spruiks billion-dollar naval weapons systems, convincing herself more than me. “It’s not as pompous as K Street.”
K Street, like Fleet Street, has remained a metonym, even after the reality changed its address. Once home to all the big lobbying powerhouses, you can now walk it and see only anonymous commercial buildings, without the serifed fonts of power on their windows. The law firms and “consultancies” that specialise in pay-to-play are more diffuse and better hidden, scattered all over the city, or without real offices at all. Some of the less connected hopefuls loiter around government buildings; others canoodle with politicians at fundraisers in bars and restaurants. Bullfeathers’ proximity to Capitol Hill means politician sightings: the young Republican rep Duncan Hunter passes wearing a fanny pack, and runs a gauntlet of mockery into a waiting Jeep Sahara. “You should google him”, someone says. “He’s a joke”. He is also the subject of a live criminal investigation into campaign finance violations.
The credit cards are getting a workout. I speak to a ruddy Texan from the American Petroleum Institute, who watches the Golf Channel on mute. It turns out he lives in the Watergate building. They didn’t change the name? “Oh no, in fact they make a thing out of it. When you call reception and they put you on hold they play the Nixon tapes.” Someone else is wearing a club tie emblazoned with jet silhouettes. Not just any old fighter, but the F-35, “the plane that cost more than Australia”. It is set to be the first trillion-dollar program in Pentagon history. “Well those skies won’t dominate themselves!” he says, swinging a pint of IPA. I speak to another petroleum flack, a coiffed gourmand who blogs under the pseudonym “Hungry Lobbyist”. He rates his own drunkenness as a two out of ten, but looks more like a two out of three, and we talk steak.
Washingtonians tend to moan about the city’s reputation for steakhouses. It is outdated, they say (a 2015 Washington Post article outlining this backlash noted that regardless, eight new steakhouses had opened in a year). So when I ask the Hungry Lobbyist to arrange a power lunch at a steakhouse, he chafes. “Just a heads up, we typically hate the phrase ‘power lunch’ in DC,” he emails later. “There are soooo many amazing restaurants in epic neighborhoods, but since they are off the beaten path, no politicians, etc go there.” He distinguishes between restaurants where no one is wearing a tie, and restaurants where everyone is wearing a tie, and I choose one of the latter: Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab, very close to the White House.
The template for many of this style of carnivorous eatery was set by Capital Grille, which opened in the ’90s under a manager named Tom Smitherman. Smitherman told me how back then, steakhouses became synonymous with Newt Gingrich’s Republicans, who were then riding anti-PC sentiments to take the House. “It was very fashionable, this disdain. The ‘greed is good’ mentality.” A New York Times article from the time describes him blowing cigar smoke in diners’ faces. Lobbyists lobbied him as well, offering tips for the best tables, and he could tell the rise and fall of their fortunes by who they dined with, and how often. The best seldom dined at all.
The key, he felt, was the clichés: the mahogany and marble, the samey menus in their own way as predictable as McDonald’s. “It’s not where someone goes for an educated diner’s experience,” he says. “The cliché is endorsed because that’s how it’s always been done. The steakhouse is as important as any other political arena”. In his book The Lobbyists Jeffrey Birnbaum recounts the history of Washington’s first “King of the Lobby”, the 19th-century fixer Samuel Ward, who said that “the way to a man’s ‘Aye’ is through his stomach”. Jeffrey Birnbaum has since become a lobbyist himself.
The Hungry Lobbyist turns out to be a late scratching the next day (perhaps he is indisposed), but I go to Joe’s anyway, which is, like he says, “beautiful inside”. There are Ionic columns and black leather banquettes, parlour palms, and frosted windows. It is, in fact, uncannily reminiscent of another kind of transactional environment, right down to the private rooms, the discreet lobby, and a back entrance and elevator. It is very like an adult entertainment venue, and designed for the same purpose of putting a gloss of luxury onto the furtive and tawdry. The newer, more modern restaurants in the “epic neighbourhoods” have partly struggled to attract fundraisers because their wide, contemporary windows might invite assassination attempts.
There is something not just traditional, but almost eternal, about Joe’s. Sinatra plays. The gliding waiters still wear dickies. A trio of old men at the bar run a Statler and Waldorf-style commentary on each guest thrown up by the business TV (the show they’re watching is called Power Lunch). “Who the hell is he?” “This guy’s hair was completely white, and he made it golden, like Trump’s.” “I haven’t seen him for ages.” “He looks the same.” “He looks terrible”.
Power Lunch says that Pope Francis has made a critique of capitalism, aimed at the “morally questionable activities of financial advisers in the management of savings”. “He better hurry up and retire, this one,” says one of the old men. “They’d better work at getting that guy from New York City. What’s his name? Dolan? He should be pope.” Cardinal Dolan once moved millions of church dollars to shield them from compensation claims by child sexual abuse victims. The financial vehicle for this was named “an autonomous pious foundation”.
It seems appropriate that I’m still long-lunching at Joe’s when I speak with James A. Thurber, one of the chief architects of campaign finance regulation. It is, he says, poorly enforced, which is an understatement. He has studied lobbying in Washington for decades, and says the current environment is “beyond of the pale of anything I’ve seen since 1973”.
“In a democracy you used to have transparency,” he says. “You need that for people to decide what corrupts. The pay-to-play has gotten way out of hand. Members are hustling for money. There’s a quota.”
The job of a senator or member of congress is much closer to a telemarketer than most people think. Their parties give them a fundraising target to meet: the former representative for Florida, Republican David Jolly, for example, was told he needed to hit $18,000 daily. This may take up to six hours of phone calls every day, on top of meetings with interest groups, and other representatives, and committees, and face-to-face fundraisers. The number of minutes a day an American politician is not in the company of a millionaire can be very small.
The budget czar Mick Mulvaney recently told a group of bankers that they had a “hierarchy” back when he was in Congress. “If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you,” he said. “If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.” Mulvaney is now supposed to be regulating these bankers through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“Lobbying is constitutionally protected in the name of our pluralist democracy”, says Thurber, “but sometimes our pluralist choir sings in an upper-class voice.” These days, the restaurants are not as important, he says. What he calls a “national psychosis” has taken hold. “The norm previously among lobbyists was that you didn’t lie,” he says. “If you did, then they don’t trust you.” People like Michael Cohen, the president’s lawyer, had changed that. AT&T and other companies gave him millions in an effort to curb the president’s very personal regulatory whims. “He’s not a lobbyist,” says Thurber. “He’s a fixer. It almost has a mob shakedown quality.”
It’s happy hour in Joe’s now, and the braying chatter is picking up as people drink half-price cocktails and boast. It is unreal that these are now the good ones, influencers whose one code of shabby honour has now drifted away in the brimming tide of the swamp. I feel sorry for them; almost as sorry as they feel for themselves.
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As happy hour starts in Bullfeathers, there are still six workers with laptops set out along the long bar, and half the busy conversation is into phones. This is a watering hole for Washington lobbyists – “bullfeathers” was Teddy Roosevelt’s preferred substitute for “bullshit” – but even if you missed the entry-level cynicism of the name, the crowd still announces itself, the way it does everything else. Loudly. It’s not just the obnoxious accoutrements: the pants suits and execu-leisurewear, the acres of plaid, even a rare matching pen-and-tie-...