Whether or not Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) returns to power, few industry lobbyists in the nation’s capital are likely to forget the lesson he once taught the electronic manufacturers: Support the Republican Party -- or else.
That industry felt DeLay’s wrath in the fall of 1998, when one of its leading trade associations hired a Democrat as its top lobbyist. DeLay and his staff temporarily blocked one of the industry’s favorite measures from coming to a vote.
His slap at the Electronic Industries Alliance led to a private reprimand from the House Ethics Committee, and even some Republicans called his approach heavy-handed. But DeLay was not deterred.
And the beleaguered former House majority leader has left a lasting mark on the capital: turning the Washington lobbying establishment into a critical cog of the Republican political machine.
Seven years after the dust-up with the electronics group, many on K Street -- home to Washington’s network of business associations and lobbying shops -- believe they can no longer divide political contributions evenly between the parties. Instead, they see their success in Congress riding more on how hard they work to provide money and political muscle to the Republican Party and its quest for a long-lasting conservative majority.
Although DeLay’s indictment this week on a Texas campaign finance charge renews questions about the ethics of mixing corporate interests and electoral politics, his well-cemented relationship with business is likely to benefit the GOP into the future.
“DeLay deserves credit for bringing about a significant change” in the way Washington works, said Richard Hohlt, a veteran lobbyist for banking and other interests. “It takes a whip and a chair to control K Street, and DeLay had both and used them,” said Hohlt.
“He was the tip of the spear,” said Stuart Roy, a former DeLay aide who now works as a consultant. “Before we were in the majority, the Republican leadership was reticent” to go too far in telling trade groups what to do, he said. “Now it is the mind-set of the leadership: If you are supposed to be pro-business, that should be reflected in your political giving and your political activity.”
Indeed, although DeLay’s indictment Wednesday forced him to step down, at least temporarily, as House majority leader, the same view of K Street has been adopted by the person replacing him in that role, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Blunt was assigned by DeLay several years ago to take over the monitoring of K Street, and some lobbyists say he has surpassed DeLay in getting businesses to mobilize on behalf of the conservative agenda.
The revolution in corporate behavior began with the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, when DeLay was among the most outspoken of several GOP leaders demanding that business groups support the party -- not only by contributing to Republican campaigns but by helping GOP leaders round up voters and selecting party faithful to run trade associations.
When the National Assn. of Securities Dealers hired a former Clinton administration official, John Hilley, as a vice president in 1998, DeLay told the industry publication Traders Magazine that the hiring was a “very big mistake.”
“For an organization to hire a highly partisan Democrat gives me great concern, because I won’t deal with such organizations,” he said. (Hilley stayed and was later promoted.)
Now, prominent Republicans head some of the city’s most influential trade groups: Former Michigan Gov. John Engler leads the National Assn. of Manufacturers, and former Commerce Secretary Don Evans, a friend of President Bush, runs the Financial Services Forum. Marc Racicot, a former Montana governor who was once chairman of the Republican National Committee, leads the American Insurance Assn.
Lobbyists who have their offices in the glass-and-steel buildings that line K Street say that DeLay’s effort has had real impact.
Many of the Republicans who have taken lobbying and trade association jobs recently owe their positions to GOP benefactors in Congress. About two dozen former DeLay staffers work as lobbyists. In these jobs, they often have access to funds they can use as donations to campaigns and conservative causes. The corporate world also supplies contacts in congressional districts that can help Republican candidates with grass-roots campaigns.
The Bush administration has sought to take advantage of these ties in building unified support for judicial nominees, the president’s Social Security proposal and, more recently, immigration overhaul -- issues that in the past did not draw much trade association activity. DeLay and other GOP leaders used business contacts to push for passage in 2003 of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, which was a priority of the pharmaceutical industry.
Before Republicans won control of the executive and legislative branches in 2000, Washington lobbying had been studiously bipartisan. Contributions from many industry groups were close to evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
But DeLay and his allies had been working several years to change that. To keep pressure on businesses to shift toward the GOP, DeLay and his allies in 1995 compiled a list of the 300 or so largest business-affiliated political action committees, along with a breakdown of their campaign donations by party. Lobbyists were told their ranking, and DeLay pressed those low on the list to give more to Republicans. Over time, contribution patterns changed.
The accounting profession, for example, gave more than half of its campaign donations to Democrats in 1994. So far this year, 71% has gone to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research organization. The insurance industry increased the share of donations to Republicans from 55% to 68% in the past decade. Energy interests increased the share going to Republicans from 64% in 1994 to 75% a decade later.
To monitor business hiring in Washington, DeLay and conservative activist Grover Norquist launched the “K Street Project,” which tracks K Street jobs and who fills them.
Norquist assigns a full-time staffer to keep up with hiring changes, which are then posted on a website. This week, for example, the site says that a liquor manufacturer has tapped a new corporate affairs chief who has made contributions to Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). A separate item reports that a Washington lobbying firm has promoted an executive who had donated to the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign fund.
Norquist said House and Senate GOP leaders consulted the database to review hiring decisions by K Street firms.
There are cases when firms hire Democrats for top jobs. But they often pay a price.
Last year, conservatives fumed when the Motion Picture Assn. of America hired Bill Clinton’s former Agriculture secretary, Dan Glickman, to run its Washington office. Afterward, Republicans removed tax-relief provisions for the film industry from a pending tax bill. Later, Glickman hired prominent Republicans, including a senior aide to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.
The electronics alliance in 1998 learned there was a cost to hiring a former Democratic lawmaker, but it was not fatal to the alliance’s interests. Its legislation eventually passed, and it kept the Democrat as its top lobbyist.
A campaign finance activist, Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, agreed that DeLay’s approach had penetrated deeply.
“It is a reality in the psyche of Washington lobbyists,” he said.
But Wertheimer said he believed the indictment of DeLay and a separate investigation of a DeLay friend, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, could lead to an abrupt change in that way of thinking.
DeLay’s efforts, he said, “have institutionalized a process of public officials demanding private companies hire lobbyists of their choice, and lobbyists must be required to pay in return. But that system under DeLay’s leadership has become so blatant and brazen that I do not expect it to last in its current form.”