When Money Talks Too Loudly

Can money buy you influence in Washington? Before answering that question, I’ll pause for the hoots of derision. Of course it can, is the short answer, and it’s a pretty simple equation. Money, when contributed to political campaigns, helps win elections. Members of Congress and presidents need to win elections. Ergo, they need money. That does help explain why they listen to the flocks of lobbyists who have in effect become a permanent part of the political system in this country, almost a fourth branch of government.

But can unlimited money buy you unlimited influence? No more hooting. Money talks — but lots of money sometimes talks too loudly: The spending of large sums in pursuit of political influence can backfire, creating the opposite effect of the one intended. To see what I mean, look again at two rather different political phenomena of the past week, and try, as they say, to follow the money.

Exhibit A is the vote in the early hours of last Friday morning, when a stunning number of House members supported a bill that would allow American consumers to import drugs from Canada and other countries, effectively benefiting from foreign price controls. The president opposed it, the House leadership opposed it, the Food and Drug Administration opposed it — but 87 Republicans joined 156 Democrats to pass the bill, despite the fact that the vote was deliberately held sometime between midnight and dawn.

More to the point, the pharmaceutical industry opposed it. This is the same pharmaceutical industry that spent more than $20 million supporting candidates during the last election cycle — a small fraction of the $150 million it spends on all of its annual lobbying. Far from helping the drug companies, though, it became clear during the week before the vote that the money the industry’s lobbyists were perceived to be tossing around Capitol Hill had become an issue in the discussion. In some cases, it inspired populist rhetoric: “They can run their ads,” declaimed Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, one of the bill’s original sponsors. “We’re going to keep fighting to put seniors and taxpayers first.”

In other cases, it inspired unusual flashes of congressional independence. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, the Republican member who forced the House leadership to hold the vote in the first place, told me that although she couldn’t, of course, say “what the industry is doing out there” — as if “the industry” were a supernatural force — she thought many of her colleagues would stick by their guns and ignore the drug lobby’s “scare tactics.” Perhaps this is, in part, an echo of the wider, post-Enron backlash against corporate America, but it is more than that too: The angry rhetoric in Washington is more about the lobbyists than the companies. Rather than “Merck” or “Pfizer,” people here sound off bitterly about the industry’s lobbying organization, “Pharma.”

All of this might have been a fluke, of course — except that this week, it’s become clear that something similar has happened to the Saudi government. So we have Exhibit B: the sudden burst of congressional and public outrage at the large chunks of the 9/11 report that were, “for security reasons,” blacked out in the published version — and the sudden, corresponding rage aimed at Saudi lobbyists, their money and their friends in high places.

Aware of the backlash, Saudi officials have actually demanded that the blacked-out pages be printed. But the damage has been done. One columnist, Rich Lowry, wrote that “Saudi flack Prince Bandar” — i.e., the Saudi ambassador — “knows the way to official Washington’s heart: cash.” Another has written of the “Wahhabi lobby” that helped “muzzle the FBI.” A gaggle of ideologically heterogeneous senators has now demanded publication of the missing sections of the 9/11 report. By not doing so, said Sen. Bob Graham ominously, the administration is “protecting a foreign government.”

The list of people who are widely said to have been “bought” by the Saudi government is long, topped by George H.W. Bush, the current president’s father, and continuing through various secretaries of state and former ambassadors to Saudi Arabia. It is almost as long, in fact, as the list of people who are registered lobbyists for the drug companies, starting with Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and continuing through several distinguished ex-Congress members of various political persuasions. A fine idea, hiring prominent people, but it’s possible to overdo it. Congressional backbenchers rarely have the chance to portray themselves as crusading heroes, impoverished Davids fighting wealthy Goliaths. Attacking lobbyists — or their fancy, formerly important political friends — allows them to do it. So beware, influence buyers, of the unpredictable impact of money in Washington — where it really is possible to spend too much.

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