Mark Bloomfield is a Washington DC-based lobbyist. He is president and CEO of the American Council for Capital Formation and also a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.
I’ve been reading Machiavelli and having a marvelous time trying to figure out which particular aspect of The Prince makes it top of your list of books on lobbying.
I studied political theory when I was in college and Machiavelli was always intriguing to me. It’s a description of the human character and in my profession, lobbying, which is all about influencing people, it’s important to get some insights into human nature. Obviously there’s a debate about what Machiavelli really meant: whether it was meant as a parody or satire. But I thought he had a good understanding of human nature.
But it’s a very, very cynical understanding of human nature. For example he says it was Hannibal’s ‘inhuman cruelty’ that allowed him to succeed.
That’s true, but then you can take someone like Hobbes, who says that life is nasty, brutish and short. If you are trying to influence policymakers, one can be realistic, one can be cynical, ultimately it’s about what you think the human condition is like. And when Machiavelli talks about flattery, when he talks about characteristics like that…
There’s certainly something to be said for being realistic. I particularly like this quote: ‘How one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live…’ It’s hard to disagree with that one. Also this idea that being naïve about the world has its own dangers: ‘Who tries to be virtuous soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.’
Yes, and you could also quote Lord Acton saying ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ In my life you have people coming to Washington who want to do good or turn the country around and are seduced. They are seduced by power, they are seduced by wanting to stay in office. It’s fascinating, because whether you’re talking about MoveOn.org [on the left] or the Tea Parties [on the right], that’s what happens, that’s what’s happening now. There are people who have been seduced by Washington, and in that sense Machiavelli is also apt. But the reason I started with The Prince, which was written in the 16th century, is also to show that this matter of influencing, this matter of governing, this matter of reconciling various interests, reconciling various goals, various personal and public ambitions, goes all the way back to the beginning. It’s not a new phenomenon. We talk about lobbying – the term was first used to refer to the British parliament – but it goes all the way back.
On a day-to-day basis, what is the most useful lesson of The Prince as you grace the corridors of power?
This question of how to govern. The isolation of the policymakers, who are surrounded by adulators, the flattery, the seduction of power. It’s all of those things that characterize human frailty, human hubris, which he picks up on.
So you try and play on those weaknesses?
I’m not sure I play on them. I understand them – I try to understand human nature as well as I possibly can. When I looked at The Lobbyists for example, and I read what the author there, Jeffrey Birnbaum, said about me. In many ways – yes. I was exploiting what Machiavelli said to exploit: being deferential, flattering people…
Before we get to that, tell me about the Saul Alinsky book, Rules for Radicals. This was published in 1971, just before he died. He was a community organizer, who organized the poor for social action, starting in the slums of Chicago, and then cities across the US. William Buckley called him ‘an organizational genius.’ How does he fit in?
I recently browsed through the book and remembered that Alinsky said ‘The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the have-nots on how to take it away.’
How do they?
Let me give you an anecdote which stuck with me – an example of being creative and entrepreneurial in terms of influencing opinion makers and getting things done, because that is really what it boils down to. Alinsky was in Rochester, New York and he was concerned that Eastman Kodak was not hiring Afro-Americans. He knew that the wives of the corporate executives at Eastman Kodak loved having a symphony orchestra as a benefit every year. This was one of the most important events, the social event in Rochester. So what he did was he bought up a lot of these concert tickets for underprivileged and indigent people, for blacks. Then he met with the wives, the corporate ladies, and advised them who would be coming and that he was going to give them prunes before they entered the concert hall. He pointed out that if one eats prunes, very often one ends up emitting a certain odor and certain noises, which might disrupt the concert. The ladies were concerned about this happening and so they lobbied their husbands to engage in affirmative action. I thought that was a fascinating story. Lobbying or influencing may be lot more sophisticated if you go to De Tocqueville and talk about interest group behavior. It can be a lot more subtle and more sophisticated. But you have to be creative, and that’s what I found: as a Machiavelli in a different era Alinsky had a perfect understanding of how to get from here to there.
So you approve of these tactics?
I’m not sure. I think Alinsky says that at times the appropriate ends determine the appropriate means. Take, for example, Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to leak the top secret Pentagon Papers to the press to try to stop the Vietnam War. What is more intriguing to me is how one can creatively use one’s resources. I am a peculiar lobbyist because I don’t make campaign contributions. I sit at Brookings, I teach at Georgetown. I have never been in a situation, hopefully, where I have done unethical things, but again, it’s another window into the human character. You have to decide what you can live with. Even though it may be counterproductive in the long-term, whenever I visit with a member of Congress I talk about the arguments for my position, and then I talk to them about the arguments against my position. Then I give them the phone numbers and addresses of people who oppose me. Maybe it is Machiavellian, maybe it is an Alinsky approach, that by doing this you end up creating an environment where you do have more influence. But in The Lobbyists — which I just reread parts of – even when you have people who disagree with me, they respect me. I have credibility.
Was Alinsky generally respected?
I don’t think most corporate lobbyists…well perhaps that’s unfair. He’s not common reading at Georgetown Public Policy Institute where I taught last year. When did I run into Alinsky? I read Rules for Radicals when I was an undergraduate, and it struck me. I was at Swarthmore College from 67-72, so I read it then, and then it came to my attention again with the election of President Obama.
It might be worth mentioning that Hilary Clinton wrote her thesis at Wellesley on Alinsky, and Obama has been inspired by him as well…
Which is another reason why it should be an important book to those who take this profession seriously. Because if policymakers read it, we lobbyists need to read it, it can’t be all about philosophy. There’s practical wisdom there. I would suggest reading The Prince because Stalin read it and I would suggest reading Rules for Radicals, because the two most significant figures in Democratic politics have read it.
Let’s talk about The Lobbyists, How Influence Peddlers Get Their Way in Washington. This is then Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey Birnbaum tracking the lives of nine lobbyists as they angle for corporate tax breaks and subsidies in Washington.
Well, as Machiavelli said, flattery is everything, it’s one’s weakness. I selected this book because I’m one of the characters in it. About the book I would say, it’s a good sitcom, it is a nice read, it gives some of the flavor of what lobbying is about. It doesn’t get into fundamental ethical questions – – whether the elites have a stranglehold on public policy or whether the system is more open and, as Alinsky suggested, the less powerful can prevail. It’s not an analytical book per se. But it gives you a good flavour of what it’s all about.
It has lots of good stories?
Lots of good stories. There’s one bit I like about Robert Juliano, who represents the labor unions. He gets yet another request to go to a fundraiser and he refuses to go saying: ‘I’m getting tired of using the union’s money…for f***ing functions which do absolutely nothing for anybody. It’s gotten to the point where there are no benefits.’
It talks about the constant pursuit, the constant need to cultivate one’s current relationships and build new ones. My wife told my mother-in-law, when she asked what I did, that I sell wind. It’s so ephemeral. The book is like a sitcom but it also does probably describe as well as anything I’ve seen the culture of this whatever-you-want-to-call-it, the lobbying world.
You feature as one of the lobbyists?
Yes, it’s one book I’ve been in. This book covers 1989-90 which is an interesting period [there were a number of lobbying-related scandals in Congress, leading, amongst other things, to the resignation of the Democratic speaker of the house, Jim Wright]. But also, you can compare what’s changed and what hasn’t changed 20 years on.
Did you get a shock, reading about yourself?
Yes. Because I come off one-third absent-minded professor, one-third technician and I forget what the other third was. But in some ways I cultivate that image because it makes me stand out. The story about losing my trousers on Pennsylvania Avenue wasn’t exactly true…But other things, quite frankly, yes. I was surprised, I’d forgotten all this. I was surprised how tactical I was, looking at each development and moving on it.
You didn’t think: ‘ I shouldn’t be doing this’?
No. And something needs to be made very clear: when one talks about a lobbyist, it encompasses a lot of activities. It obviously encompasses people who promote special deals or special breaks or special items for a specific company, or a specific industry. Lobbying can be done ethically – your activities could be ethical or not ethical, they can be legal or illegal. I feel comfortable with the fact that I am promoting one view of public policy [lowering capital gains tax and taxes on businesses] – as opposed to a ‘special interest’ per se.
The book describes the luxury holidays, the speaking fees to curry favour with politicians, but also this idea that a member of Congress needs money from special interest groups to get elected.
Yes, and that is one of the more serious aspects of it. The Kaiser book So Damn Much Money goes into this more. As Jesse Unruh said ‘money is the mother’s milk of politics’ and there’s no question that money plays a pervasive role. Having said that, sometimes different interests balance each other out. Money is spent on both sides – and yes there is an inordinate amount of time spent by members of Congress raising money and spending money, but if you talk about the amount of money that is spent – more money is spent advertising toothpaste. The extent to which money determines elections is not clear-cut. Even now you see people being completely outspent and yet winning. The other alternative is to have public finances [for campaigns], and that also raises some concerns. My approach is not to have the public pay for elections, just full disclosure on the understanding that there is hypocrisy on both sides. The problem is that, unfortunately, I am a Burkean. I am concerned about solutions to problems with a lot of unintended consequences.
But when you look at the role of lobbying as a whole, are there cases where you think ‘Wow – they really went too far.’
I can think of numerous ones.
Do you want to give some?
One is the milking of clients. The Abramoff case is the perfect example. I think it’s also in the Birnbaum story – people tell various interests or clients that they’re doing stuff when they’re doing nothing. But that’s not the most egregious. The most egregious is just plain out corruption: basically, giving money to a politician to enact or change a rule or a law. That does happen. I think it happens less than it did many years ago. But it does happen.
My third example is hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is when the Republicans are in office, Democratic interest groups talk about all sorts of conflicts of interest, and today when Democrats are in power, we see the same thing. Another form is ‘public interest’ lawyers who join the government to do good, write regulations to allegedly accomplish good things, but they are the only ones who can understand these regulations. They then jump ship, become senior partners in big law firms because businesses subject to these new laws have to hire the only ones who can explain them. Also, we see influential Democrats in the public arena, who are perceived to be close to the Obama White House. They denounce lobbyists but at the same time have relatives who are lobbyists who play off the public position of their family. The other thing is the thing Jonathan Rauch describes – Demosclerosis – how nothing can be done in Congress, that no changes can be made, which is the charge that Kaiser makes in his book. But I’m not sure it’s the result of lobbyists or other forces. The legislative process is logrolling. Some of these things that Birnbaum or others claim are so horrible, aren’t really corrupt. Politicians represent their constituencies, and who am I to say that a bridge to nowhere is an evil thing?
One of the reviews says he reports on a rumor that a former Senator was paid $500,000 to make a single phone call to a Committee Chair.
I don’t doubt it. That’s the milking of your client – naïve people do this. I’m not sure that phone call did that much, because the Senator or Congressman on the other side knew what was going on. And so the person who suffered was the person who was dumb enough to hire the former Senator. The client may have got access, but that doesn’t mean that something corrupt happened. And yes, well-to-do people have more access than poor people. But Alinsky can win and does win.
Is it true that the Tea Partiers are now using Alinsky methods?
Yes, that’s what I found intriguing. They are great community organizers like Alinsky, like Barack Obama in his youth. As Jonathan Rauch put it, ‘The organization has no offices, dwelling instead in activists’ homes and laptops…They intend to rewrite the rule book for political organizing, turning decades of established practice upside down. If they succeed, or even half succeed, the tea party’s most important legacy may be organizational, not political.’
You like their tactics?
Yes, the fact they challenge, they express their views, they’re out on the streets. Obviously I object to racist placards and I object to stomping on people’s heads, but I applaud them going to their representatives and saying ‘No! I’m not going to be fooled by what you’re saying. You say one thing, you vote another – you don’t represent me.’ That, I applaud. Obviously I’m probably in a minority in the business community saying that I welcome the Tea Party. But I find it refreshing.
But you’re a lobbyist, aren’t the Tea Party against lobbyists?
The Tea Party is against lobbyists, but then it depends what kind of a lobbyist you are. I’m like Mitch Daniels, I’m a Libertarian, and many of the things they advocate I’m also against. I want government out of my hair. In my area, taxes, what are they basically saying? They are saying, ‘I don’t want people to take my money and give it to people and government programs that I don’t like.’ Secondly they’re saying, ‘I don’t want my hard work and my savings and my retirement nest egg taxed; I don’t want Abramoff and special breaks for Indian tribes.’ It turns out that our professional challenges are similar in some ways. And I think now, by working with them, there is the possibility of a fundamental upturning of the tax system.
It definitely needs it. But how are you going to set about it?
One of my first endeavours will be to get to know some of the Tea Party people. I suspect I’ll be able to. I won’t wear a bow tie, I won’t wear a pin-striped suit, or smoke a cigar. But I’ll meet with them and I’ll say – we share many goals. Actually one of the most stimulating discussions I recently had was a dinner with a Congressman-Elect who owes his place in Congress to the Tea Party movement.
That’s going to be confusing, to have someone they in principle oppose, a lobbyist, trying to befriend them.
Yes, but then, in many ways, they are a lobby too.
Your next book is The Life and Times of Sam Ward, the King of the Lobby.
I think this book is intriguing for several reasons. It’s a caricature of the old lobbyist, it talks about what it used to be like. It talks about a time when things were much more corrupt than they are now. I really do think there is a big difference. When I started my career, there was a famous movie mogul, who was a big Democrat, and he kept an unbelievable amount of cash in a New York office safe. That’s how it was then. Now it’s much more difficult to pass cash around. The book is interesting because lobbying has of course changed a lot, with Twitter and Tweeter and technology. That’s one aspect of it. But the other aspect of it, again going back to The Prince, going back to Alinsky, is a real understanding about human nature. And when I thought about it over the weekend and I looked at the book, I realized that there is a similarity between what Sam Ward did and what I do.
My ‘evenings’ when I bring together the media, Members of Congress and business spokesmen. I don’t know if you’ve seen the articles or not but The Economist and The Wall Street Journal all talk about my dinners. I found out 20 years ago that members of Congress never get to discuss issues. They say: ‘When we’re at a hearing, we’re signing mail. When we’re at our office, we’re looking at the next appointment. Then we have to run over to Party headquarters to raise money for our reelection campaigns. So the only time we actually get to talk with our colleagues is when we’re on an airplane.’ And so I said, why don’t I do this? And I did. And it’s been going on every since and everyone’s come.
So when you read about Sam Ward you don’t think he was that bad?
He may have been. Was he part of a scheme to bribe a congressman to vote a certain way? Did he milk his clients? Well, perhaps that was a victimless crime.
He came from a banking family, and was lobbying on behalf of banking interests, so there’s also the beginnings of this idea of the lobbyist having the technical expertise, that Congressmen and their staffers perhaps don’t have…
That’s much more important today than it was then. Because in Sam Ward’s time issues weren’t that complicated. Now any issue is much more complicated than one can imagine. In the old days you could actually understand what was being passed. One can talk about being a cynic, but there are many in the Washington establishment who mean well. So they work for the government and then what they do? They end up drafting the regulations, the thousands of regulations that are needed for, say, the health care bill or the Wall Street reform bill. But then they end up being the only ones who understand them. So then they go downtown and represent companies or those folks who are being regulated, because they’re the only ones who can understand it. What does a lobbyist need to do? No. 1 he obviously needs to have access to the policymaker, he needs to have credibility. Secondly, he obviously has to have a command of the substance. Then he also has to provide some judgment on how this all unfolds. Not only can the average member of Congress not know what is in the bill, he can’t know the broader picture of what is going on.
Tell me about the last book. So Much Damn Money by Bob Kaiser.
The reason I suggested it is, firstly, that Kaiser has been in Washington for 40 years. He could thus write with insight, having watched Washington for many years. Secondly, it’s the latest book on ‘lobbying.’ But it presents a point of view which I think is sophomoric.
Too simplistic. Basically he says that Washington is dysfunctional because of lobbyists. And I think yes, lobbyists put stones in the wheels. But some of that is warranted because it’s the expression of legitimate interest groups. He focuses a lot on earmarks. Well, some people want earmarks, but that’s not what our major problems are. I think the real problem with the US is much more than lobbyists – it’s people wanting more from government than they are willing to pay for. I don’t think our entitlement programs are the result of lobbyists. There’s no question, even though Obama said they didn’t, that lobbyists made off with the health care bill. The insurance industry supported the health care bill, and why did they support it? They may have supported it because they want Americans to have health care, but they also supported it because there were deals made with them. As Bismarck said, making laws is like making sausages, it’s not a pretty sight.
But specifically the book traces the career of a man called Gerald Cassidy, who came to Washington as an idealistic young lawyer…
Yes. It’s the seduction issue again. Cassidy came to Washington as a liberal Democrat, a McGovernite, food stamps, all of that. And then, he became a lobbyist and it wasn’t even broad issues that he was representing – it was gimmies to specific clients. And the irony was it wasn’t Indian tribes, it was nice things like universities, including the University of West Virginia. So you had the late Senator Byrd of West Virginia, one of the most powerful Senators, the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, saying ‘Why are you hiring this lobbyist? I represent my constituents! If the University of West Virginia wants a grant don’t hire this guy, come to me directly!’ So you’ve got the human story of lobbying, idealists being seduced by the aphrodisiac of Washington. Why can’t WVU go directly to Senator Byrd? Unfortunately the reality is that WVU may not think it is skilled in the legislative process, it may feel awkward or guilty about a special grant. But any Member of Congress would die to try to do something for their constituent.
Kaiser also points out that by 2006 it costs nearly $8 million to win a Senate seat.
Yes, this is interesting, and so they have to go to the lobbyists and special interest groups [to raise the money]. So what’s the solution? Why does it cost that much? Is it the TV and media costs in a political campaign? Some argue that one could allocate free time on TV for candidates, but I’m a little bit nervous on posing the costs of democracy on a select number of businesses.
There may be a better answer. He’s presenting a problem, but I’m not sure the lobbyist is the problem per se. You need to have avenues open for the citizenry to influence their legislatures, for the governed to influence the governors. It’s a legitimate expression of democracy, and the role of interest groups. And when you talk about interest groups, there are some arguments that Political Action Committees, for example, allow individuals to band together. On the other hand, lobbying can be corrupting, lobbying can skew public policy makers. What we may be concerned about is, of course, the payoffs.
Also, in some sectors of the economy interest groups are more powerful than others. But which entity was providing the most money in this last election? It was the public employees union. They are public employees, working for the government, but they’re also influencing the government: that’s a concern some people might raise.
Frankly I’m not as worried about the public employees as I am about the National Rifle Association.
But if the NRA wasn’t there and I was running for public office in Montana, I’d probably still be for guns. Yes, because of the NRA supporters of freedom to bear guns have more influence than if they didn’t have a ‘lobby.’ They can mobilize their people in minutes to contact their Member of Congress. But remember that the opponents of guns have their own organization, the ‘Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.’ It’s not as powerful as the NRA but it’s there and it prevails on occasion. Intruding in people’s right to petition their representatives is a slippery slope that can hurt the right as well as the left, the gun lobby as well as the environmental lobby. So how does one deal with it? In Kaiser’s book, well intentioned reforms are suggested. One that is already in place is the ‘the toothpick rule.’
The toothpick rule?
Under recent reforms, to avoid people like me having influence, I cannot take a Congressman or staffer to breakfast, lunch or dinner anymore. I also cannot give gifts worth more than $25 as a lobbyist. It sounds like a good idea but these limitations don’t apply when you go to a fundraiser. Also, the unions are furious because their members are primarily represented by union lobbyists, while CEOs can still go to the White House for dinner because they are CEOs not lobbyists. Congressmen and Senators can’t accept a meal but there’s a toothpick rule: that is to say, if the food can be picked up on toothpicks, it’s not really that dangerous, it’s not really that big. There’s also the rule of 25, if there are more than 25 people it’s a well-attended event and it’s OK.
So are you not allowed to have your dinners anymore?
Sure I’m allowed to have my ‘evenings’. Actually we don’t have seated dinners anymore, just a roundtable discussion because frankly journalists, Members of Congress and businessmen want to go home and spend time with their families or prepare for the next day or they’re on a diet. There are always more than 25 people. I comply with the law and all rules and regulations. So one is the technical issue, I comply with the 25 person exception. What is more important and often can’t be captured in rules and regulation is human nature, human frailty and behavior. I feel comfortable because there are conservative and liberal and the most cynical of journalists there and we’re discussing broad issues. There is even a well-known, very influential American journalist who once attended one my evenings, which actually was a true miracle because he is terrified of talking to a ‘lobbyist’ or going to meetings where a ‘lobbyist’ might appear for fear of being perceived as corrupted. Often those worth corrupting are probably least likely to be corrupted…
Tell me more about these rules.
If you get the Kaiser book you can have a look. It gets very difficult because what does lobbying mean? Strategic advice is not lobbying. How much contact do you have? What kind of contact? How does one eliminate corruption? There may be rules, so what you do, for example, is if you’re a former Senator or congressman. You’re not allowed to lobby the first year or so – and so you sit there and don’t register but your underlings do and they’re the ones who do the work.
The book’s blurb says that Kaiser also shows us how ‘behavior by public officials that was once considered corrupt or improper is now commonplace.’
The behavior under Samuel Ward was worse than today. Let’s use the example of Bob Kaiser, the esteemed gentleman from the Washington Post.
Some eager beaver at the Washington Post, his newspaper, decided to have dinners – just like Sam Ward. Specifically they were going to charge $25,000 to introduce people to editorialists and journalists so they could have their shot at determining the press coverage and the editorial coverage of their positions. It turned out to be not accepted behavior and it fell apart.
I think we may be back at Machiavelli and human frailty.
We also have Jeffrey Birnbaum, author of The Lobbyists, who I got in touch with last week. He went from the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Post, to the Washington Times, to — and I’m not going to make a judgment about it — to head of public relations at a lobbying firm.
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Mark Bloomfield is a Washington DC-based lobbyist. He is president and CEO of the American Council for Capital Formation and also a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.
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