A 35-year veteran of Congress, former Senate majority leader, and now partner at K Street's most storied lobbying firm, Trent Lott knows the system. And the system has rewarded him richly -- as when Patton Boggs recently wrote a multimillion-dollar check to buy his firm, the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group.
So the last thing Lott needs is a bunch of unwashed, Tea-Partying right-wingers coming to Washington on a wave of anti-establishment, free-market populism, and messing up the good thing he has going.
"We don't need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples," Lott told the Washington Post, referring to the conservative South Carolina senator who has been a gadfly for party leadership and a champion for upstart conservative candidates. "As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them."
But Lott is no longer in the Republican leadership -- he resigned from the Senate in December 2007, mid-term, just before a law kicked in that would have required him to wait two years before lobbying the Senate. So who is he talking about when he says "we need to co-opt them"?
"We" means the K Street wing of the Republican Party.
There are Republican candidates, officials and activists who don't like the way Washington works and who seriously want to cut government back to sustainable and constitutional levels. And then there are the more "reasonable" grown-ups -- Republicans, in and out of office, who like talking about this sort of thing (and may kind of believe it) but who understand Washington as a game, or even a racket: Raise a fuss, quote Ronald Reagan, attack the other side, exalt capitalism -- then get rich off the taxpayer.
Look at Lott's lobbying clients: Citigroup, General Electric, Raytheon, Entergy and other Beltway bandits, subsidy sucklers and regulatory robber barons. These guys live off of bailouts, massive government spending, and earmarks. These are exactly the policies Republicans are supposed to oppose, but don't. They're also the very things Tea Partiers and Jim DeMint rail against most.
It's not that the Republican congressional leadership does the bidding of the Republicans on K Street. In fact, policy outcomes don't matter so long as the money keeps flowing so the system can keep working: Clients give money to lobbyists; lobbyists raise money for politicians; government goes to bat for clients; lawmakers cash out and become lobbyists. Then repeat.
Lott lobbied for energy giant Entergy on climate legislation, and Entergy supports cap-and-trade. Lott was paid for helping cap-and-trade backers while Republicans scored political points by opposing the policy. Everybody wins.
The other two recent Senate majority leaders are also in on this game. Bob Dole is a lobbyist at Alston & Bird, where he supported the health care law that benefited his health-sector clients. Bill Frist is a partner at an investment firm that uses its "deep expertise in the health care reimbursement and regulatory environments" to make money investing "in almost every for-profit niche of health care." Frist also backed health care "reform."
So the cashed-out GOP leaders are on the opposite side from the not-yet-cashed-out GOP leaders, but pay close attention and you'll notice something: While GOP lawmakers might battle the regulations that enrich Lott's, Dole's, and Frist's clients, they never call out the policy profiteers -- that would be gauche.
But when the Tea Party folks wave their pitchforks, they're cursing the bailout bandits as much as much as they're cursing the profligate politicos. That's why folks like Lott are worried about candidates from these ranks. It's part of why the K Street Republicans rallied behind Trey Grayson in Kentucky's Senate primary, supporting him at a fundraiser hosted by an AIG lobbyist.
Other GOP candidates this cycle come more directly from K Street: former Rep. Rick Lazio, running for New York governor, lobbied for JPMorgan Chase. Roy Blunt, running for Senate in Missouri, married a top lobbyist for pro-regulation tobacco giant Altria. Dan Coats, who lobbied for cap-and-trade and represented drugmakers and big banks, is the Senate nominee in Indiana.
Meanwhile, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada are running against both Capitol Hill and K Street. In the post-bailout, post health care "reform" era, it's obvious to anyone paying attention that you can't believe in the free market and also believe in K Street. You can't fight for limited government unless you're ready to fight against big business. You can't be a true conservative and be happy with the system.
Trent Lott knows which side he's on.
Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's lobbying editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He writes an op-ed column that appears on Friday.