The K Street Project and Jack Abramoff

In Washington, K Street is synonymous with the lobbying industry. The K Street Project, a Republican initiative to integrate lobbyists into the political power structure, had been linked to the current scandal with lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

K Street is a long, wide boulevard here in Washington lined with many of the Capitol's most powerful lobbying firms, and it's the namesake of the K Street Project. That's a Republican effort to integrate lobbyists into the heart of the political power structure. To learn more, we turn to NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Juan, how did the K Street Project get started?

WILLLIAMS: Well, Renee, after the '94 midterm elections, when Republicans won the majority in the House of Representatives, the new speaker, Newt Gingrich, began an effort to harness the influence and money of K Street lobbyists to benefit the GOP leadership. He deputized then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay to make sure Republicans in the House were getting the winners' share of campaign dollars from K Street and being well-represented on the staffs of major lobbying firms and trade associations. DeLay was joined by conservative movement activist Grover Norquist, former majority leader Dick Armey, Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, the chair of the Senate Republican Conference, as well as others.

MONTAGNE: And did they succeed?

WILLLIAMS: Oh, yeah. They played hardball and they won. For example, in 1998, DeLay and Gingrich held up a bill protecting intellectual property rights to protest the electronic industry's decision to hire a former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma, Dave McCurdy. Once President Bush won the White House in 2000, DeLay and other GOP leaders in Congress had all the more ability to punish lobbyists who did not play by their rules. They isolated them, keeping them away from the offices of powerful politicians. They kept lists of the employees of major lobbying firms to see how many Republicans, especially former GOP Hill staff, worked for any lobbyist.

Twenty years ago, Renee, top jobs on K Street were just about split between Republicans and Democrats. By 2003, it's estimated 33 of the top 36 jobs on K Street were held by Republicans. Industries like oil and gas that once split their contributions between Democrats and Republicans now gave 75 percent to the GOP.

MONTAGNE: So with all of that in place, how did or does the system work?

WILLLIAMS: Well, they created a formalized structure for the relationship between the Republican leadership, especially in the House, and the lobbyists on K Street. It locked lobbyists into what was openly called a pay-to-play system. So lobbyists, including former Hill staffers, would be given access to leadership once they'd given campaign contributions and hired Republican staff. In addition, the Republican leadership would go back to the lobbyists and ask them to put pressure on members of Congress to support leadership priorities.

Senator Santorum holds regular meetings to review legislative requests from lobbyists, as well as their staffing and political contributions. Grover Norquist, the conservative activist, holds weekly meetings with Hill staff and K Street lobbyists to set a GOP agenda, tell them their marching orders, to support certain legislation or alert them to a member who needs political help.

MONTAGNE: Which seems to bring us to Jack Abramoff, that uber-lobbyist at the center of the current scandal.

WILLLIAMS: Well, that's right. Abramoff is, in some ways, the face of how lobbying and Congress became intertwined. He played by the GOP leadership's rules. He contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican members of Congress, he hired staff people from DeLay's office and family. In one case he allegedly offered a highly paid lobbying job to a senior Interior Department official who had influence over decisions affecting Indian tribes that hired Abramoff as their lobbyist.

MONTAGNE: Now lobbyists, Juan, have been in Washington for a long time. Is this really--this Republican effort really all that different from how things worked with Democrats when they were in the majority?

WILLLIAMS: Renee, yes and no. You know, I hate to be like that, but scandals like Abscam and the Keating Five involved Democrats. And these scandals attached to individual members of Congress, however. Under Democrats, there wasn't this formalized structure I've been describing of how lobbyists and members work together. People who keep an eye on congressional scandals, people like Professor Dennis Thompson at Harvard, Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, they say it's the scope of the scandal as a way that business got done for everyone across the board that makes it a potentially bigger event than anything we've seen before.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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