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'K Street' misses bigger story

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - HBO's new pseudo-reality series K Street offers an amusing and entertaining peek inside the world of Washington power. But its view inside the curtain that shrouds the real K Street is about as close to reality as M*A*S*H was to a real war zone.

As a journalist who works in and around the real K Street - a stark boulevard that is to the world of power-brokering and influence-peddling what Wall Street is to high finance - I'm delighted to see Hollywood take it seriously enough to make a series about it.

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But after watching the first episode Sunday, I wonder whether co-producers Steven Soderbergh, the Oscar-winning director of Traffic, and actor George Clooney will be serious enough to show the deal-making, back-scratching, log-rolling and brow-beating that goes on in K Street's real world.

Washington insiders must be amused, for example, to see how closely the premiere show's storyline came to revealing a brutal reality on today's K Street: the pressures that congressional Republicans have begun to apply somewhat brazenly to make lobbying firms more pro-Republican since the party took over both houses of Congress in 1994.

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Playing somewhat fictionalized versions of themselves, the husband-wife, right-left team of Mary Matalin and James Carville have a conflict. Ms. Matalin is upset that her husband has decided to provide debate preparation training through their fictional bipartisan consulting firm for the real Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean.

Although congressional Democrats were also quite good at milking K Street when their party was in charge, the landscape changed in 1994.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and other conservative activists launched their "K Street Strategy": Trade associations were forced to oust Democrats if they wanted to do business with the new Republican Congress.

In 1995, Mr. DeLay invited the lobbyists into his office and showed them their places on his list of the 400 largest political action committees (PACs), along with the amounts and percentages of money they had recently given to each party, in two columns: "friendly" or "unfriendly."

It's legal, too, although the House Ethics Committee reminded all members in 1999 after an investigation of Mr. DeLay that fundamental ethics rules prohibit "taking or withholding any official action on the basis of ... partisan affiliation." Oh. Right. It's easy to forget.

The goal of the "K Street Strategy," wrote Nicholas Confessore, an editor at The Washington Monthly, is to build a powerful new force in Washington politics: a new Republican machine.

"Like the urban Democratic machines of yore, this one is built upon patronage, contracts and one-party rule," he wrote. "But unlike legendary Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who rewarded party functionaries with jobs in the municipal bureaucracy, the GOP is building its machine outside government, among Washington's thousands of trade associations and corporate offices, their tens of thousands of employees, and the hundreds of millions of dollars in political money at their disposal."

Instead of ward supervisors, the new patronage jobs are high-ranking positions in K Street lobbying firms. (They're lucrative jobs, too. A deputy undersecretary might earn $140,000. A top oil lobbyist can make $400,000.)

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There they provide congressional leaders with eyes, ears, advice and feedback unimpeded by the pesky rules, regulations, inspectors general, congressional oversight and nosy reporters who swarm around their government counterparts.

Whether lobbyists serve democracy or subvert it is another matter. That's why I wish K Street success in bringing more attention to how K Street's world really works. If anything is certain, it is that the clout of lobbyists grows whenever the public is paying the least attention. When the public looks the other way, a perverse Golden Rule often takes over: Whoever has the gold makes the rules.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Company newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun. He can be reached at cpage@tribune.com.


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