President Bush's recent decision to name an active, registered lobbyist to head the Republican National Committee shows how power, money and hubris in Washington can dull the ethical judgment of an administration that vowed to "restore honor and dignity" to the White House.
Former Montana governor Marc Racicot is a registered lobbyist for the Houston law firm of Bracewell & Patterson, personally representing the controversial energy firm Enron, the American Forest and Paper Association, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the National Energy Coordinating Council, the Recording Industry Association of America and Quintana Minerals. According to disclosure records, Racicot's clients paid $710,000 in fees to his firm in the first half of this year. The Los Angeles Times reported in August that, on behalf of the National Electric Reliability Council, Racicot had lobbied Vice President Dick Cheney and his energy task force director, Andrew Lundquist, on the Environmental Protection Agency's attempts to require old plants to update their clean-air equipment. The Cheney task force later recommended that the Justice Department consider dropping lawsuits it had filed against certain companies for alleged environmental violations. The administration continues to stonewall requests to release information about the energy task force.
Racicot, as Republican Party chairman, will not accept his $150,000 annual salary but will instead earn much more as an active partner in the law firm. The president, said Racicot, has no problem with his wish to "continue on with my occupation." Chairing the party in control of the White House and the House of Representatives, and simultaneously working as a high-profile lobbyist whose lucky firm is certain to add many more eager clients, Racicot instantly will become the most powerful influence peddler in Washington.
As party chairman, he will be in regular, face-to-face contact with the president, the vice president, Cabinet secretaries and the senior White House staff, as well as the speaker of the House and other GOP congressional leaders. He will know the vote counts of all pending legislation before the roll is called, and what legislation the White House plans to introduce on Capitol Hill -- pure gold for any lobbyist competing in today's mercenary milieu. He will have infinitely more power and access than other lobbyists, but without the accountability, financial sacrifice or ethics laws of government officials. Although political parties are public institutions in our society, top party officials are not regulated by conflict-of-interest laws and are not even required by law to reveal their sources of annual income. Nor does the Freedom of Information Act apply to them, so whom they meet with, correspond with or telephone is elusive and generally unknown.
None of these issues fazes Racicot, who recently told The Post's Thomas Edsall, "The chairman is not a government employee. I'm going to be involved in the political activities of our nation as a volunteer." Under this Orwellian construct, I guess thousands of well-heeled, corporate lobbyists are all political volunteers in Washington, and in our gratitude, we will soon call such patriotic selflessness "a thousand points of might."
The Bush White House similarly doesn't see anything wrong with this picture. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said, "There's been ample history on both the Democratic and Republican side of chairmen being involved in either lobbying or having outside sources of income." Unfortunately, he is correct. According to the Center for Public Integrity, between 1977 and 1993 half of the national party chairmen received outside income from corporations and law firms -- despite party charters expressly stipulating that the chairman's position is "full time."
Republicans, among others, strongly criticized the late Ron Brown's conduct as chairman of the Democratic Party in the early 1990s, when he simultaneously maintained a corner office at the lobbying firm of Patton, Boggs as a full partner and maintained business relationships with at least three of its clients. He solicited government contracts for both his law firm and a company he headed, while heading the party.
Because of the Brown controversy, when Washington lobbyist Haley Barbour became GOP chairman in late 1992, he pledged to party leaders and on CNN that he would sever his ties to Barbour, Griffith & Rogers. But in fact he never sold his interest in the firm, deriving income from its tobacco, pharmaceutical and other clients. The subterfuge became known to reporters only in the final days of his four-year term, when Barbour's firm landed a contract representing the Swiss government and had to register ownership and other information with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. In the letter of agreement stipulating that the firm would receive $20,000 a month, Barbour's partner Lanny Griffith wrote to the Swiss ambassador, "We are eager to assist the Swiss government managing the controversy arising out of allegations of Swiss banking practices before, during and after World War II and relating to the Holocaust."
Forget those quaint notions that political parties exist to elect candidates. Parties and their chairmen raise hundreds of millions of dollars each election cycle from various special interests that often want something from government. They are the enablers in this addictive process, helping their elected officials to keep drinking in the campaign cash and helping their patrons feel good about giving it. Besides being lobbyist in chief, chairmen help to deliver access and other favors to the most generous party patrons.
Candidate George W. Bush's comments in the presidential debates now ring hollow and, in retrospect, ironically Clintonesque: "We need to have a new look about how we conduct ourselves in office. There's a huge trust. . . . We can do better than the past administration has done. It's time for a fresh start after a season of cynicism."
The writer is executive director of the Center for Public Integrity.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company