So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government

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9780307266545: So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government

Book by Kaiser Robert G

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A SCANDAL FOR OUR TIME

In the early hours of February 22, 2004—a cool, clear, late-winter day—copies of the fat Sunday edition of The Washington Post landed on doorsteps and driveways throughout the nation’s capital and its booming suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. Near the top of the front page, an arresting headline announced a scoop:

A JACKPOT FROM INDIAN GAMING TRIBES
LOBBYING, PR FIRMS PAID $45 MILLION OVER 3 YEARS

This was a seductive come-on in a city where making money was in vogue, and the story lived up to the enticement. The Post reported startling details about the exploits of a lobbyist named Jack Abramoff, then forty-six, and a public relations man who collaborated with him, Michael Scanlon, thirty-three. They had persuaded four Indian tribes flush with gambling money to pay huge fees to exploit Abramoff’s connections with conservative Republicans in the White House and Congress to protect the tribes’ interests. At Abramoff’s urging, the tribes also hired Scanlon to do unspecified public relations work.

“The fees are all the more remarkable because there are no major new issues for gaming tribes on the horizon, according to lobbyists and congressional staff,” reported the Post’s Susan Schmidt. Abramoff persuaded the tribes that they needed his help “to block powerful forces both at home and in Washington who have designs on their money,” Schmidt wrote, quoting members of the tribes to this effect. She disclosed that the four tribes had donated millions of dollars to politicians and causes suggested by Abramoff, and had changed their traditional patterns of political contributions by giving less to Democrats and more to Republicans—at his urging. “Some members of the tribes” Abramoff represented “have begun to complain that they are getting little for their money,” wrote Schmidt.

Neither Abramoff nor Scanlon was a household name in Washington. But Tom DeLay was, and DeLay’s name appeared five times in that Post story. DeLay, a successful small businessman who ran an exterminating firm in the suburbs of Houston before he became a politician, was then the most powerful man in Congress. Everyone knew that DeLay had chosen Dennis Hastert of Illinois to become Speaker of the House of Representatives
when that job suddenly came open in 1999. DeLay’s title was majority leader, technically second-ranking to the speaker, but their colleagues
understood that DeLay was smarter and tougher than Hastert, and more influential among House Republicans.

In the mid-1990s DeLay and his colleagues in the Republican leadership had struck a bargain with Washington’s lobbyists that was both brazen and remarkably successful: if the lobbyists would help raise hundreds of millions of dollars to support Republicans and help preserve their majority in Congress, DeLay would invite them into the legislative process, and allow them to propose entire bills and suggest changes to legislation
proposed by others.

Both sides fulfilled this understanding with gusto. The Republican National Committee and the party’s House and Senate campaign committees, which collected $358 million in contributions in the two years prior to the 1994 elections when Republicans won control of Congress for the first time since 1952, reported contributions of $782 million a decade later, in 2003–04—a 220 percent increase. Lobbyists and their clients helped make that possible. And lobbyists for corporate interests won countless legislative provisions from the Republican House and Senate favoring their clients. Under the accepted interpretation of the law on bribery, all of this was entirely legal. The law prohibits a member of Congress from “corruptly” seeking or accepting money in return for “being influenced in his performance of any official act.” That adverb “corruptly” speaks to intent, but it speaks vaguely. “Corruptly” has no clear legal definition. Absent evidence that the political contributions directly purchased the legislative results, quid for quo, both the contributions and the favorable legislative provisions were legal.

The Post story about Abramoff, Scanlon, and their Indian clients mentioned DeLay in three contexts: as a friend of Abramoff’s with whom the lobbyist enjoyed “a close bond”; as Scanlon’s former employer (Scanlon had been Representative DeLay’s press spokesman in the late 1990s); and as one of the congressional leaders Abramoff had persuaded to defeat a proposal to tax Indian gambling earnings in 1995, when he had just begun representing Indian tribes. Abramoff used the argument then that the tribes were “engaged in the same ideological and philosophical efforts that conservatives are—basically saying, ‘Look, we want to be left alone.’ ”

With DeLay so prominently involved in this story, it quickly qualified as a scandal. Because Washingtonians tend to evaluate a scandal by the rank and power of those involved, this one looked juicy. A good scandal makes life richer and more interesting for nearly everyone in town—apart from the involved parties. The Abramoff scandal arrived with impeccable timing, after eight years of Republican control of the House of Representatives that had brought lobbying and money to the forefront of public consciousness and changed the accepted standards of behavior in Washington.

The Post is the house organ of Washington’s political class; virtually all its members read the paper every day. Its stories are grist for one of the world’s most prolific gossip mills. On Monday morning, February 23, the Abramoff story was Topic A on Capitol Hill and across the city. On Tuesday the 24th, a Republican congressman from the Washington suburbs of Virginia, Frank Wolf, released a letter to the attorney general and the director of the FBI asking them to investigate relations between the Indian tribes and Abramoff and Scanlon. On Thursday the 26th, Senator John McCain announced an investigation by the Committee on Indian Affairs, which he chaired. The reported fees paid by Indian tribes to Abramoff and Scanlon were “disgraceful,” McCain said. Now the story had legs.

In a press release on March 3, Abramoff’s law firm, Miami-based Greenberg Traurig, announced that he was leaving the firm. Abramoff had brought riches to his partners in the three years he had worked there, but now a member of its executive committee said Abramoff had “disclosed to the firm for the first time personal transactions and related conduct which are unacceptable.”

What did “unacceptable” mean? Abramoff operated in a world of huge numbers and vague standards. Lobbying in Washington is traditionally done on a retainer basis—clients pay lobbyists fixed monthly fees, regardless of the hours actually worked or the results achieved. Lobbyists are thrilled to get a $40,000-a-month client; $60,000 a month is considered a bonanza. Abramoff was charging each of his four tribes $180,000 a month. McCain and other members of the Indian Affairs Committee thought the lobbyist was committing grand larceny. “He was ripping off Indians,” was the way Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii put it. But Greenberg Traurig hadn’t complained about the size of the fees or looked very closely at Abramoff’s operations until the Post story appeared.

Abramoff had acquired a big reputation among his competitors for his success expanding Greenberg Traurig’s lobbying practice. In 2000, the year before Abramoff brought his large “book of business” from his previous law firm, Greenberg Traurig’s lobbying revenue had been about $3 million. In 2001, it shot up to $16 million, then to more than $25 million in 2003. Suddenly, Greenberg Traurig ranked fourth among the lobbying powers in town. Everyone in the business knew this was Abramoff’s doing.

In the lobbying fraternity, reactions to the Abramoff revelations were strong. Nearly everyone was surprised by the amounts, huge by any standard. Abramoff’s competitors wondered what he had done for the Indians to justify those fees. Many sensed the odor of malefaction, hardly an unknown aroma in Washington. One man, however, saw an opportunity.

Gerald S. J. Cassidy, then sixty-three years old, had been a Washington lobbyist for three decades when he read that Post story. He had never met Abramoff, who was much younger than he and a product of the conservative Republican movement. Cassidy was a liberal Democrat whose circle of acquaintances did not include many brash young conservatives. But he knew about Abramoff, and envied his success.

Abramoff’s achievements at Greenberg Traurig came at a difficult time for Cassidy and the firm he ran, Cassidy & Associates. The same year-end statistics that recorded Greenberg Traurig’s leap into fourth place in the standings of lobbying firms’ revenues showed that Cassidy & Associates had fallen out of first place in 2003. News of that disquieting change appeared in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, on February 25— three days after the first Abramoff story appeared in the Post: “Lobbying shop Patton Boggs replaced Cassidy & Associates as king of K Street last year. . . .” A quarter-century earlier, K Street was the location of many Washington lobbyists’ offices; the name had become the city’s favorite euphemism for the world of lobbyists. Gerald Cassidy had been in first place for many years, and he did not like being second.

Not that he was in any apparent difficulty. The numbers that described Cassidy’s business were all large. At the end of 1999 he had sold his firm to an international advertising and public relations conglomerate, the Interpublic Group, for a little more than $60 million. He continued to...

Revue de presse :

“With bold insight and telling detail, Robert G. Kaiser raises the curtain on Washington to reveal a tragic drama in which money triumphs over principle. Here, in a single book, is the reason why our politics must be transformed.”
-Robert B. Reich, former secretary of labor

“Bob Kaiser has written the real story of the breakdown of our political system. In the pages of this enormously important book, we can also glimpse a path toward reform–as a new president and Congress take office.”
-Carl Bernstein

“With the keen eye of a novelist and the precision of a social anthropologist, Bob Kaiser ventures deep into the alluring if soulless world of the archetypal Washington lobbyist and returns with a vivid and unforgettable story. In some ways, So Damn Much Money is the book Kaiser has prepared his entire career to write, and we are all the better for it.”
-David Maraniss, author, First in His Class

So Damn Much Money tells you how Washington, D.C., really works. After over 40 years in Washington, Kaiser knows that if leaders lead from convictions and the people wake up to their power as citizens, we can still do great things in America.”
-Senator Bill Bradley

So Much Damn Money is an accurate and frank description of how lobbyists and money have come to run Washington. It is very much in the spirit of the great muckraking books at the turn of the 20th century.”
-Representative Leon E. Panetta

"A colorful and well-reported saga of one superlobbyist and the web he was able to weave. A very timely book."
-Walter Isaacson, author, Kissinger: A Biography

“Bob Kaiser takes the reader past the clichés and caricatures of Washington, and tells a very human story. He leaves the reader with an understanding of how it is possible that American government has reached a point where it now struggles to meet our most basic challenges. Kaiser calls upon a deep understanding of Washington and a writer’s gift for telling a fascinating but true story. This is an important and compelling book.”
-Senator Chuck Hagel

So Damn Much Money tells the story of how lobbyists and lobbying have hijacked American government and made Washington into an unexpected venue for getting rich. Well documented and fascinating.”
-Kevin Phillips, author, Bad Money

“Illuminating . . . Kaiser’s narrative skills are formidable. He can make a suspenseful story out of a twenty-five or thirty-year-old dustup over academic earmarks . . . But where So Damn Much Money really stands out is in the chapters that trace the broader trends that Cassidy’s rise represented . . . If the outlines of this squalid story are familiar, the details . . . still have the power to shock, and the corrosive influence of high-powered lobbying is clear.”
-Michael Tomasky, The New York Review of Books

“A timely and important read . . . The American people may not be pushing for reform of the appropriations method or the campaign finance system, but So Damn Much Money will at least show its readers why they should care. Kaiser brilliantly succeeds in illuminating the little-known ways that American policy is made, and how well-placed and well-connected people are able to profit from the holes in the American system.”
-Joshua Spivak, San Francisco Chronicle

“Fascinating . . . This book will help us understand national politics.”
-James Q. Wilson, The Washington Post

“Penetrating . . . Kaiser is right, and so is Barack Obama in his attempt to attenuate the corrosive links between lobbying and government.”
-Norman Ornstein, The New Republic

“Robert G. Kaiser’s new book could not be timelier . . . fascinating and well told.”
-John W. Dean, The Boston Globe

“The biography of Mr. Cassidy is a delight . . . The twists and turns in Mr. Cassidy’s career make for engrossing reading . . . Mr. Kaiser enlightens us when he shares the secrets behind a lobbyist’s success.”
-Matthew Continetti, The Wall Street Journal

“Kaiser knows the terrain . . . His portrayal of the lobbying boom will confirm what you probably already suspect: The craft’s practitioners operate just this side of bribery.”
-Andrew J. Glass, The New Leader

“Unusually good . . . [Kaiser is] an extremely fluent storyteller and an expert finder-outer . . . [So Damn Much Money] is a wonderfully complete and fair-minded account.”
-David Warsh, economicprincipals.com

“Eye-opening, and a key to understand how money works in Washington–for the most part, corruptly.”
- Kirkus

“In-depth and critical . . . Surely, Washington insiders will rush to bookstores to snatch up Kaiser’s detailed book . . . Let’s hope that some of those insiders in the brand-new administration pick up So Damn Much Money and start addressing the problem.”
-Harry Levins, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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