Denny Hastert's wild Washington

Thanks to the House GOP's gutting of ethics rules, the capital is once again the land of free food, junkets and lobbyists galore.

Published January 23, 2003 11:53PM (EST)

Assume the position. It just got a little easier for special interests to screw the public -- courtesy of the public's own representatives in Washington, who saw fit to kick-start the 108th Congress by gutting a pair of pesky ethics rules designed to reduce the amount of influence-peddling on Capitol Hill.

Despite the soaring deficit and unemployment rates, our leaders decided that the most pressing order of business was loading up the congressional gift bags -- you know, the party favors they get just for showing up -- with even more goodies and tempting morsels.

Thanks to Denny Hastert and his pals in the House Republican leadership, lobbyists will now be able to pick up the tab for House members whenever the lawmakers attend charitable events, including golf outings and those all-important policy retreats held at lavish resorts. The new rules, which are hardly worthy of the term since it connotes constraint or restriction, also increase the amount lobbyists can spend to feed congressional staffers a yummy catered meal when they are working late.

This late-night catering is a time-honored tradition among corporate lobbyists looking to suck up to the folks doing the heavy lifting on legislation affecting their clients. Think of it as Meals for Deals.

Last year, for instance, while Hastert's staff was burning the midnight oil on a prescription drug bill, they enjoyed a dinner sent over by drug industry lobbyists whose mothers obviously taught them that the fastest way to an industry-friendly loophole or regulation is through a staffer's stomach. And if an antacid were needed to counteract the after-effects of the meal, I'm sure the drug flacks were only too happy to oblige.

But, to tell the truth, it's not the gastronomic giveaways that bother me, but rather the far-too-cozy relationships they represent. How on earth did the drug lobbyists know Hastert's staffers were working late, anyway? Is that how it works in today's Washington: The first call you make is to your wife to let her know you're working late, and the second call is to a lobbyist to let him know that you'd like your filet mignon a little on the pink side? Of course, in many cases, it isn't even necessary to pick up the phone -- the lobbyist is already there, helping write the legislation side-by-side with the staffers.

Perhaps the reason that politicians and those seeking to influence them are spending so much quality time together of late is that, more and more, they are already fast friends -- former colleagues or longtime associates who have passed through the revolving door connecting Capitol Hill and K Street.

The latest public servant to privatize himself is Nick Calio. For the last two years, as head of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, Calio has been responsible for promoting the president's agenda in Congress. He also acted as the administration's version of Monty Hall, doling out presidential perks to members of Congress -- including flights on Air Force One and invites to state dinners (especially coveted in this administration, since the buttoned-down Bushies have given exactly two).

Earlier this month Calio left the White House to become chief lobbyist for Citigroup. The hire couldn't have come at a better time for the embattled banking behemoth, which has been under fire from state and federal regulators -- and has just agreed to pay $300 million in fines to settle claims that its stock analysts intentionally misled investors.

Citigroup needed someone to call off the watchdogs and school them in a little obedience to their natural masters -- and who better than the president's personal lobbyist?

The competition to land Calio was intense -- someone with his access to power doesn't come on the market every day. Once word hit Wall Street that Calio was ready to cash in his White House clout, companies began to pursue him like a tabloid reporter on the trail of Diana Ross' DUI outtakes. GE and the Motion Picture Association of America were among those reportedly bidding for his services but, in the end, Citigroup -- desperate and deeply funded -- won out, offering Calio what one insider termed a "king's ransom."

It looks to be the kind of perfect match only possible in Washington. While at the White House, Calio helped Congress craft legislation -- including the business reform bill passed in response to the rash of scandals infecting corporate America.

Now, as a senior vice president at Citigroup, he'll help the company find a way to tiptoe through -- and, if possible, around -- those same reforms. And he'll be peddling Citibank's agenda to the very same members of Congress he used to lobby for the president. Like I said, cozy. No daylight visible through that wall of chummy suits.

Just as the Bush administration is chock-full of erstwhile corporate execs, the Citigroup masthead is jam-packed with past government officials, including former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin and a pair of former chiefs of staff at the Securities and Exchange Commission, Michael Schlein and Jennifer Scardino. To that Democrat-heavy roster, Citibank can now add George Bush and Trent Lott's little buddy Nick Calio.

This weekend the National Republican Congressional Committee is selling Super Bowl tickets to lobbyists so they can watch the game and hobnob with Hastert at the same time. And the lobbyists are just as busy at the state level. In the 34 states that keep track of such things, there has been a 91 percent increase in spending since 1995 by lobbyists trying to influence public policy. Expenditures like the money the California prison guards union spent last month treating the state's legislative leaders to a fun-filled trip in Maui. I'm sure there was no connection between the sun-drenched holiday and the $518 million pay hike the guards had received at a time of a massive budget crunch.

Bon voyage, good government.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

MORE FROM Arianna Huffington

Related Topics ------------------------------------------