WASHINGTON – People who don't know this city well don't know where to find the worst parts of the "swamp" that President Trump complains about.
Its deepest, darkest waters won't be found on Capitol Hill or in the White House or in the stately buildings that house government agencies. Instead, they're on and around K Street, a wide boulevard of nondescript office towers filled with fixers for corporations and other special interests.
This lagoon gushes with green: cold hard cash, tens of millions of it, which the wealthy and powerful dole out piece by piece to keep themselves wealthy and powerful.
Proof lies in the case study of Michael Cohen, President Trump's personal lawyer who became, with Trump's election, a $600,000 fixer for AT&T.
That sounds like a lot of money to the average American, but it was chump change to AT&T, which spent $16.78 million on Washington lobbying last year.
Cohen wasn't even registered as a lobbyist, but AT&T paid Cohen $600,000 for "insights into understanding the new administration" – at a time when AT&T's $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner was pending before a very skeptical Justice Department.
Slimy as that seems, it's just part of what Cohen's newly hatched company, Essential Consultants, did to make headlines in recent weeks. It paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 in hush money to keep quiet over an alleged tryst with Trump a decade earlier. And Cohen's company also just so happened to take $500,000 from Columbus Nova, a company formed by a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin.
In other words, Cohen cashed in, big league or "bigly," on his ties to the new president. But he could do so only because there was so much cash floating around the companies that hired him, and so much money floating around K Street.
How much? Let's just look at a few other companies and special interests that Buffalonians may have reasons not to love, to see how much they spend to try to get their way with the government:
- Charter Communications, owner of fee-crazy Spectrum Cable, spent $8.88 million to influence Washington's influencers last year.
- The Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers Association, which represents an industry that brought us everything from high prescription drug prices to an opioid epidemic, spent $25.85 million on lobbying in 2017. And that's just part of big pharma's efforts: in total, the pharmaceutical and health care products industries spent $279.57 million to press its interests in Washington last year.
- Facebook, the social network that got a little too social with the private information of millions of its users, spent $11.51 million on federal lobbying last year.
- HSBC Holdings, the international banking conglomerate that left the once thriving Marine Midland Center in downtown Buffalo a largely empty shell, spent $4 million to buy influence in Washington in 2017.
- Verizon, which tops AT&T as the nation's largest cellphone provider – and which restricts its high-speed internet service to higher-income neighborhoods – spent $12.23 million to win friends and influence people in the nation's capital last year.
Note that all of those expenditures are on lobbying: the hiring of people to learn the issues and meet with and press the politicians and bureaucrats to do the bidding of special interests. We're not even talking about the big business of campaign contributions, which we will examine in closer detail in a future Briefing.
Federal lobbying alone was a $3.37 billion industry last year, employing 11,529 people. That's 26 and a half lobbyists for every one of the 435 members of the House of Representatives.
So it's no wonder that Capitol Hill offices are routinely swamped with influence peddlers, no wonder that lawmakers often see these very same back-slappers and palm greasers at evening campaign fundraisers.
That's the swamp, and that's how it works.
Don't forget, though, that lawmakers work for you, not the lobbyists. Members of the House, especially, are paid to hold your local interests at heart.
Each one of them earns $174,000 a year – less than a third of what Michael Cohen got from AT&T alone – to represent 700,000 or so constituents.
So that's what you're up against: an influence industry with, it seems, all the money in the world.
But you, the people, have a power the lobbyists lack: the hiring and firing power called voting.
It's the only power you have to keep the swamp creatures at bay, so you might want to pay close attention and use that power wisely every November.
President Trump delivers remarks at the 37th Annual National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service, and then attends the Senate Republicans' weekly policy lunch ... Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifies on the nation's security needs at a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing ... Music legend Smokey Robinson testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Protecting and Promoting Music Creation for the 21st Century" ... Small Business Administration administrator Linda McMahon testifies on "The State of Small Business in America" at a Senate Small Business Committee hearing ... The Heritage Foundation holds a discussion on "The Case for a Political Elite: Why the Kochs, Zuckerberg, and Soros Should Be in the Senate.''
The New Yorker takes a close look at the Trump administration's attempts to eradicate the "deep state" ... The New York Times notes that just as the United States is asking other nations to abandon their nuclear weapons, America is expanding its arsenal ... The Washington Post explains the deadly protests tied to the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem ... The National Review notes that Republicans still have an advantage in the electoral college ... And the New Republic profiles the U.S. spy who became a radio hack for the Russians.