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Tomgram: Thomas Frank, Worshipping Money in D.C.

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers:Read today's piece and then get your hands on Thomas Frank's new book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?It's the political must-read of this season if you want to know where liberalism went in the last two and a half decades. The next TomDispatch post will be on Tuesday, July 5th. Tom]

I'm no stranger to shakedowns. I've experienced them, in one form or another, from Asia to Africa.

Sometimes the corruption is subtle. Sometimes it's naked. Sometimes you press folded currency into someone's palm. Sometimes there's a more official procedure. Sometimes a payment is demanded outright. (A weapon might even be involved.) Other times, it's up to you to suggest that we somehow work things out privately.

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Luckily, I live in the United States, and if the 2016 presidential campaign has reminded me of anything, it's that America is, by definition (and unlike so many of the other countries on the planet), a corruption-free zone. Mind you, no one would claim that the race for the Oval Office is free of unethical behavior. It's just that the actions and efforts involved aren't considered "corrupt" here.

Take an Associated Press (AP) expose last week. It revealed that the campaign of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump had "plowed about $6 million" -- roughly 10% of his expenditures -- "back into Trump corporate products and services." The campaign paid, for instance, about $520,000 in rent and utilities for its headquarters at Manhattan's Trump Tower and an astounding $4.6 million to TAG Air, the holding company for the billionaire candidate's airplanes.

The AP investigation found that the Trump campaign was "unafraid to co-mingle political and business endeavors in an unprecedented way," while noting that there is, in fact, "nothing illegal about it." In other words, while it may seem shady, feel fraudulent, and -- to steal a Trumpism -- sound crooked, it's all on the up and up according to our unique American system.

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Today, Thomas Frank, author most recently of Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, takes us on a tour of another dimly lit corner of corruption-free America, a completely legal and remarkably unethical world that comes with its own guidebook: a newsletter chronicling daily dalliances involving money, alcohol, and political influence. Though it may seem like a foreign world to those of us outside the Beltway bubble, it influences our daily lives in myriad ways. Think of it as a circuit of cocktail hours and cocktail parties linked by a well-greased set of revolving doors; an endless series of social events attended by the influential, the influencers, and those looking -- for the right price -- to be influenced. If it seems like I'm using that word -- influence -- a little too much, it isn't by chance. Let the influential Thomas Frank explain how influence and Influence have warped Washington and the rest of our world. Nick Turse

The Life of the Parties
The Influence of Influence in Washington
By Thomas Frank

Although it's difficult to remember those days eight years ago when Democrats seemed to represent something idealistic and hopeful and brave, let's take a moment and try to recall the stand Barack Obama once took against lobbyists. Those were the days when the nation was learning that George W. Bush's Washington was, essentially, just a big playground for those lobbyists and that every government operation had been opened to the power of money. Righteous disgust filled the air. "Special interests" were much denounced. And a certain inspiring senator from Illinois promised that, should he be elected president, his administration would contain no lobbyists at all. The revolving door between government and K Street, he assured us, would turn no more.

Instead, the nation got a lesson in all the other ways that "special interests" can get what they want -- like simple class solidarity between the Ivy Leaguers who advise the president and the Ivy Leaguers who sell derivative securities to unsuspecting foreigners. As that inspiring young president filled his administration with Wall Street personnel, we learned that the revolving door still works, even if the people passing through it aren't registered lobbyists.

But whatever became of lobbying itself, which once seemed to exemplify everything wrong with Washington, D.C.? Perhaps it won't surprise you to learn that lobbying remains one of the nation's persistently prosperous industries, and that, since 2011, it has been the focus of Influence, one of the daily email newsletters published by Politico, that great chronicler of the Obama years. Influence was to be, as its very first edition declared, "the must-read crib sheet for Washington's influence class," with news of developments on K Street done up in tones of sycophantic smugness. For my money, it is one of the quintessential journalistic artifacts of our time: the constantly unfolding tale of power-for-hire, told always with a discreet sympathy for the man on top.

Capitalizing on Influence

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It is true that Americans are more cynical about Washington than ever. To gripe that "the system is rigged" is to utter the catchphrase of the year. But to read Influence every afternoon is to understand how little difference such attitudes make here in the nation's capital. With each installment, the reader encounters a cast of contented and well-groomed knowledge workers, the sort of people for whom there are never enough suburban mansions or craft cocktails. One imagines them living together in a happy community of favors-for-hire where everyone knows everyone else, the restaurant greeters smile, the senators lie down with the contractors, and the sun shines brilliantly every day. This community's labors in the influence trade have made the economy of the Washington metro area the envy of the world.

The newsletter describes every squeaking turn of the revolving door with a certain admiration. Influence is where you can read about all the smart former assistants to prominent members of Congress and the new K Street jobs they've landed. There are short but meaningful hiring notices -- like the recent one announcing that the blue-ribbon lobby firm K&L Gates has snagged its fourth former congressional "member." There are accounts of prizes that lobbyists give to one another and of rooftop parties for clients and ritual roll calls of Ivy League degrees to be acknowledged and respected. And wherever you look at Influence, it seems like people associated with this or that Podesta can be found registering new clients, holding fundraisers, and "bundling" cash for Hillary Clinton.

As with other entries in the Politico family of tip-sheets, Influence is itself sponsored from time to time -- for one exciting week this month, by the Federation of American Hospitals (FAH), which announced to the newsletter's readers that, for the last 50 years, the FAH "has had a seat at the table." Appropriately enough for a publication whose beat is venality, Influence also took care to report on the FAH's 50th anniversary party, thrown in an important room in the Capitol building, and carefully listed the many similarly important people who attended: the important lobbyists, the important members of Congress, and Nancy-Ann DeParle, the Obama administration's important former healthcare czar and one of this city's all-time revolving-door champions.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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