Wages of Sin

by Jonathan Chait | May 16, 2005

Everybody, with the exception of Jack Abramoff, agrees that Jack Abramoff is a very sleazy man. (You can get a sense of Abramoff's low repute from his ubiquitous description as a "disgraced lobbyist"; in a profession of such rock-bottom standards, to distinguish yourself as unethical requires villainy on a truly epic scale.) And most everybody agrees that Representative Tom DeLay, Abramoff's longtime friend and ally, is at least moderately sleazy. "The Beltway wisdom is right. Mr. DeLay does have odor issues," argued The Wall Street Journal in a widely noted editorial. All that is certainly true. But DeLay and Abramoff are not merely a pair of ethically challenged individuals. They do not even merely represent the Republican leadership having grown "comfortable with the perks of power," as National Review noted with dismay. They are the inevitable byproducts of the governing ideology that has taken hold in George W. Bush's Washington. The ideology is called "big-government conservatism." "Big-government conservatism" may sound like an oxymoron, but Bush has proved that it is not: He is undeniably a conservative, and, just as undeniably, he has expanded the power of the federal government. How, though, can a conservative preside over a larger and more intrusive government? Conservative intellectuals have made a series of attempts to explain (or, in some cases, explain away) the president's Leviathan tendencies. Three interwoven theories have emerged. The first defines big-government conservatism as a concession to public demand. As Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review has written, "[T]he constituency for smaller government is too weak to prevail." Many of the critics as well as the defenders of big-government conservatism agree on this point. The critics-- like Ponnuru and his colleague Jonah Goldberg--see big-government conservatism as a simple ideological capitulation. Defenders have tried to portray big-government conservatism as making virtue out of political necessity. George F. Will defines big-government conservatism as using government programs to promote moral values among the citizenry. Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes posits that big-government conservatives are "realistic and programmatic," embracing "programs that work." The Economist has endorsed both the virtue and the programmatic interpretations. None of these accounts, though, goes very far toward explaining what Bush has done and why he has done it. If government has expanded under Bush because of hostile currents of public opinion, then it should have expanded even faster under President Clinton, who was less conservative than the current president. But, in fact, non-defense spending as a percentage of the economy actually declined under Clinton, from 17 percent of gross domestic product to 15.5 percent, before rising smartly under the present administration from 15.5 to 16. 5 percent. (Did homeland security contribute to the rise in spending under Bush? Just a bit: It accounts for about one-seventh of the domestic spending hikes.) Conservatives haven't explained why a moderate liberal like Clinton had an easier time than Bush in resisting popular demand to spend. And the efforts to put a positive spin on big-government conservatism are embarrassingly sparse. If you itemize the ways Bush has enlarged Washington's power, few of them have any plausible connection to moral values. (David Kuo, former White House deputy director of faith-based initiatives, complained that the administration "never really wanted the 'poor people stuff.'") Fewer still can be considered demonstrably effective. (Barnes musters only three examples of Bush supporting "programs that work": the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program, the National Weather Service, and the National Science Foundation, which combined represent a miniscule portion of the expansion of spending under his administration.) The failure of intellectuals on the right to adequately define big- government conservatism reflects their failure to grasp the ways that DeLay and Abramoff became central to the conservative movement in Washington. To define big-government conservatism as a form of pragmatism or as the promotion of virtue is to miss its fundamentally corrupt nature. In truth, the most accurate definition--that is, the definition that explains the broadest scope of Bush's big-government initiatives--is far less edifying: Biggovernment conservatism consists of initiatives that benefit economic elites without using free-market mechanisms. Conservatives before Bush did not, of course, oppose each and every way in which Washington commandeered society's resources. Some of Bush's biggest initiatives--increased spending on defense and security and the vast deficits that inevitably result when those are combined with huge tax cuts--are very much in keeping with mainstream, small-government conservatism. (Or, at least, to the extent that there's a contradiction between them and small-government principles, it's a contradiction that most conservatives have been willing to overlook since long before Bush took office.) But that still leaves plenty of new ways that Bush has expanded federal power to set him apart from the conservative tradition. Begin with the Medicare bill, Bush's largest social spending initiative by far. It's true that Bush probably embraced the notion of adding prescription- drug coverage because opposition had grown untenable. But the distinctive characteristic of Bush's bill is its staggering array of handouts to private interests. The goodies included a $71 billion subsidy for corporate health care plans, $46 billion for Medicare HMOs, $25 billion for hospital chains, and more than $100 billion for pharmaceutical companies, not including a lucrative provision forbidding the federal government from negotiating lower drug prices. Just about all of Bush's big-government conservative agenda works the same way. Whereas Clinton signed a law phasing out federal crop payments, Bush lavished $180 billion in subsidies for agribusiness. His energy plan, roundly condemned by free-market economists, would have done the same for the energy industry, which, after all, wrote much of it. Bush's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, had he been more committed to their funding, could have turned thousands of charities into federal clients. Bush's expansion of government is not limited to higher spending. At various points, he has imposed protective trade barriers on imports of textiles, steel, lumber, shrimp, and other goods. And he has been particularly shameless in creating narrowly targeted tax breaks of the sort that increase, rather than diminish, Washington's role in the economy. Last fall, Bush signed a little- noticed corporate tax bill that, rather than cut rates across the board, showered benefits on bow-and-arrow manufacturers, foreign dog-race gamblers, ceiling-fan importers, and other dubious beneficiaries whose only claim to preferential treatment lay in their ability to lobby for it. Bush's big-government conservatism represents the coming to fruition of a Republican strategy ten years in the making. When the GOP took control of Congress after the 1994 elections, it undertook an ironclad alliance with the business lobbyists of K Street. The most famous aspect of this alliance was the K Street Strategy, the successful Republican campaign to force business donors to abandon their traditional bipartisanship and instead hire from and donate to the Republican Party exclusively. The less well-known, but far more important, aspect of the GOP-K Street alliance revolved around policy. By steering government largesse toward their own donors, Republicans could create a self-perpetuating money machine. Industries whose profitability relies on government largesse--and especially those that depend on favors that only Republicans support--will naturally invest some of those profits back into the political party that provides them. Nicholas Confessore explained how this machine works in a definitive 2003 Washington Monthly cover story. Taking the example of Medicare, he wrote, "[U]nder the GOP plan, the medical insurance industry would gradually become a captive of Washington, living off the business steered to it by the government but dependent upon its Beltway lobbyists--themselves Republican surrogates--to maintain this stream of wealth. Over time, private insurers would grow to resemble the defense sector: closely entwined with government, a revolving door for Republican officials, and vastly supportive, politically and financially, of the GOP." Does that sound overly dramatic? Consider what Robert E. Moffitt, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said about Bush's Medicare bill last fall. "The Medicare program has now become a vast arena of special interest politics," he told The Boston Globe. "It has been transformed from a system where we were providing health care for seniors into a system where there is a massive redistribution of income among health care providers." Social Security privatization would, over time, affect a similar transformation in the financial sector. While ideology surely motivates would-be privatizers more than money, they have no doubt given some thought to the future prospect of grateful Wall Street executives looking to protect the hundreds of billions of dollars of business steered their way by Republican Washington. Conservatives protest that their close ties with K Street make them no different than the Democrats who once ruled Congress. It's certainly true that the old Democratic Hill barons, like their Republican successors, engaged in plenty of unseemly influence-peddling. But the contrast between the two is a difference in degree so great it is essentially a difference in kind. The Democratic Party's capacity to raise money from, and provide favors to, business has always been limited by its alliance with other interest groups-- labor, environmentalists, consumer groups--largely hostile to business. Liberals have traditionally seen K Street as an impediment to their agenda, even when Democrats controlled the White House and Congress. In 1979, Michael Kinsley wrote in these pages about liberal Democrats (he took the example of famed New Dealer-turned-lobbyist Lloyd Cutler) who sold out to illiberal business interests: The more sympathetic you seem to the general cause of progressive reform, the more sympathetic legislators and regulators will be to your suggestions for "compromise" or "delay" in a particular case. So the best Washington lawyers are ones with long and varied experience in government, lots of friends who are still there, and sterling liberal credentials. Such highly polished souls do not come cheap. Contrast Kinsley's sentiment with that expressed in a recent column by Tony Blankley, the Washington Times editorial page editor and a former spokesman for Newt Gingrich. "In a thousand ways that are hard to publicly spot," writes Blankley in an impassioned defense of DeLay, "the K Street effort helped all Republicans win elections, pass legislation they believed in and generally govern the country." Democrats often worked at cross-purposes with K Street. (Sometimes the two were at war, such as when business lobbyists helped kill Clinton's health care reform in 1993-1994.) Republicans, with their inherent mistrust of taxes and regulation, would have enjoyed friendlier relations with K Street no matter what. But the distinct contribution of big-government conservatism has been to cement an alliance between the two, to the point where the line between party and private interest has all but disappeared. You simply cannot make big-government conservatism work without people like Abramoff and DeLay. News accounts have focused on Abramoff's personal lucre. But much of the money he wheedled from his clients did not go into his own pockets. He directed it instead to various financial cogs in the GOP machine-- candidates, foundations, and think tanks (see "Writers' Bloc," page 27). His role was to find business interests--be they Indian casinos or sweatshops in the Northern Mariana Islands--whose profitability depended on Washington, and turn them into paid-up clients of big-government conservatism. As lobbyist and GOP operative Grover Norquist told National Journal ten years ago, "What the Republicans need is 50 Jack Abramoffs. Then this becomes a different town." DeLay, meanwhile, took it as his role to discipline K Street. He famously kept a list dividing lobbyists into "friendly" and "unfriendly" categories based on the partisan loyalty of their donations, threatening those in the latter category to throw themselves wholly into the GOP camp. "If you want to play in our revolution," he notoriously warned, "you have to live by our rules. " His close alliance with lobbyists forced DeLay to tiptoe so lightly along the line of legality that he was bound to cross it eventually. Most of the DeLay scandals--a memo suggesting he made promises to a company called Westar Energy Inc. in return for donations; members of his staff's (almost certainly)illegal funneling of corporate money into Texas races; his acceptance of prohibited gifts from lobbyists--stem from his efforts to build and operate a patronage machine for his party. Whatever rules or laws DeLay may have broken were premised on the assumption that there is a distinction between the interests of elected officials and the interests of corporations and their lobbyists. It's no surprise that he lost sight of that distinction. In his world, it had long ago ceased to exist.

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