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‘The Wolves of K Street,’ by Brody and Luke Mullins, is a history of highflying lobbyists

‘The Wolves of K Street,’ by Brody and Luke Mullins, is a history of highflying lobbyists

In our $28 trillion economy, $4.2 billion was spent last year on lobbying the federal government. That’s less than what Americans spent on underarm deodorant. Yet it’s axiomatic that if a business wants to make Congress or the executive branch do something — or (more often) not do something — then it must hire one of Washington’s roughly 13,000 registered lobbyists. Lobbyists are, in essence, human turnstiles. If you don’t swipe your credit card with them outside Senator X’s office, you don’t get in. At some later date, the lobbyist passes a portion of your money to Senator X as a campaign contribution.

If hiring a lobbyist is the prerequisite to getting something done in Washington, why is lobbying such a punishing industry? Partly because it’s a relatively new one. As Brody Mullins, a Washington-based investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal, and his brother Luke Mullins, a contributing writer for Politico, relate in their new book, “The Wolves of K Street: The Secret History of How Big Money Took Over Big Government,” in 1961 only 130 companies retained lobbyists, in most cases “not to influence lawmakers but to try to sell products to Uncle Sam.” It wasn’t until the rise of the public-interest movement, led by Ralph Nader, and the consequent creation of watchdog agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, that the corporation- dominated lobby industry started taking shape. By the early 1980s, the number of companies retaining lobbyists had risen to 2,500, and “lobbying spending, which totaled about $100 million in the mid-1970s, would soon reach the billions.” The lobby sector grew briskly over the next three decades.

But not briskly enough to turn lobbying into a major American industry, largely because of certain structural limitations. Congress has only 535 members. That works out to about 20 registered lobbyists for each legislator. Make that 40 lobbyists for each legislator if Timothy M. LaPira, a political scientist at James Madison University, is right that there are at least as many “government relations professionals” who find some way to lobby without officially registering. Those members of Congress work long hours, but they can devote only so many to letting some lobbyist talk their ear off.

The upshot is that the lobby industry, though every bit as parasitic and corrupt as its critics maintain, is not perhaps as formidable as you’ve been told. Revenue shrank during the Obama years, at first thanks to the 2007-2009 recession and, later, legislative gridlock; they didn’t start to climb again until Donald Trump entered the White House. The number of registered lobbyists never recovered from the Great Recession, peaking in 2007 at 15,000, tumbling over the next decade by one-quarter, then rising last year to about 13,000. And while there’s no shortage of lurid stories about moneyed interests winning in Washington — especially in finance — political scientists have struggled to document whether, overall, corporate America typically gets its money’s worth from lobbying. A 2018 study in the Journal of Corporate Finance looked at 1,500 S&P 500 firms over the period 1998 to 2016 and found “a negative and significant association between lobbying activities and firm performance.”

What this suggests is that, although corporate lobbyists certainly fleece the American public through weakened legislative and regulatory language that favors business, they put at least as much effort into fleecing the corporations that hire them. That comes across loud and clear in “The Wolves of K Street,” as the Mullins brothers introduce the reader to a rogue’s gallery of highflying lobbyists.

On the Republican side, these include Paul Manafort, who sported a $15,000 ostrich-skin jacket and a $9,500 matching vest; became campaign manager for Donald Trump to dodge angry creditors; and ended up serving time in prison for tax fraud, bank fraud, witness tampering and illegal foreign lobbying. (Trump later pardoned him.) On the Democratic side you’ve got Evan Morris, who ordered a $1,500 Bordeaux at his golf club and then killed himself with a shot to the head because lawyers were getting nosy about some irregular expenditures he had billed to his firm, the drug company Genentech. You’ve got Tony Podesta and Jim Courtovich, who barely escaped prosecutions for fraud; and Roger Stone, who narrowly escaped jail thanks to a commutation by Trump; and Brian Ballard, who set himself up as gatekeeper to the supposedly swamp-draining Trump, extracting $100 million from 120 corporations in the bargain. When Politico called Ballard “The Most Powerful Lobbyist In Trump’s Washington,” it handed him a license to print money.

“The Wolves of K Street” interweaves narratives about these and other large-living Washington lobbyists, and this creates a structural problem that the Mullins brothers can’t overcome. The Washington superlobbyist is a remarkably uniform social type. He (he’s usually male) is a vaguely seedy character desperate to impress the world with his powerful connections; given to vulgar displays of opulence; and, though partisan, bears of substantive convictions. These qualities are so reliably consistent that the book’s multiple story arcs become repetitive. That is, I suppose, the book’s point — behold the moral squalor of influence-peddling. But as bad guys go, Washington superlobbyists lack much piquancy. I did not enjoy spending time with them.

My interest perked up in the book’s final 10 pages as it took a more analytic turn, but I can’t agree with its conclusions. The brothers argue that lobbying faces headwinds today not because the industry delivers value irregularly but because Trump “finally shattered Washington’s pro-business policy consensus.” Oh, please. Yes, Trump contradicted the business establishment on trade and immigration, and some Republican legislators have criticized corporations for being too broad-minded on social issues. We’ve even seen a little pro-labor cosplay. But this is still your father’s GOP. As president, Trump delivered tax cuts and deregulation for corporations, and lately he’s been promising more of the same to oil executives if they’ll only steer $1 billion to his campaign. If Trump poses any threat to the lobby industry, it’s only because his shamelessly transactional approach to politics encroaches on their turf. Trump is his own turnstile. Why pay a lobbyist when you can eliminate the middleman and hand your check directly to a once and possibly future president of the United States?

Timothy Noah is a staff writer for the New Republic and the author of “The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.”

The Secret History of How Big Money Took Over Big Government

By Brody Mullins and Luke Mullins

Simon & Schuster. 612 pp. $34.99