I was sitting on Nantucket with a glass of wine in hand when I realized I couldn’t stomach the job any longer.
I was a lobbyist between 2003 and 2010 in Washington, DC. I quit in disgust. Years of legalized bribery had exposed me to the worst elements of our country’s political workings. Not even my half-million-a-year salary could outweigh my conscience.
In my years as a lobbyist, I worked for the alcohol industry, for the racing car industry, and for a billionaire named Carl Icahn. I met with hundreds of Congress members advocating for the political interests of my employers and clients. Now I make my living as a journalist and host of the Decode DC podcast, where I help listeners understand the inner workings of Washington.
When I tell people I used to be a lobbyist, their ears perk up. To me, people are intrigued because it feels like a hidden world. Most Americans don’t think they’ve ever met a lobbyist or actually understand what the hell a lobbyist does. Their only association is Jack Abramoff, who served time in a federal penitentiary for, among other things, bribing members of Congress. He was a bad guy, and his actions left a bitter taste in the mouths of the body politic.
But the truth is most lobbyists are not at all like Abramoff or his cronies were back in their glory days. They were the exception to the rule. Today, most lobbyists are engaged in a system of bribery but it’s the legal kind, the kind that runs rampant in the corridors of Washington. It’s a system of sycophantic elected leaders expecting a campaign cash flow, and in return, industry, interest groups, and big labor are rewarded with what they want: legislation and rules that favor their constituencies.
It’s a system that only responds to money, and after years playing and paying the game, I wanted out, fast.
Lobbying is perfectly legal — but it’s a right that gets abused
Now, before everyone gets their panties in a wad, let me be pointedly clear about something: I support lobbying and believe it’s an essential part of our constitutional right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Everyone in this country, from the left to the right, deserves a voice, and they should be heard loud and clear. If that means hiring a lobbyist to represent your point of view before Congress, awesomesauce. If that means you take to the streets, demand meetings and town halls with cowardly members of the House and Senate, or, better yet, run against them, I’m your biggest advocate.
But what I don’t support are Supreme Court rulings that have repeatedly told us money is an absolutely protected form of speech. A string of cases like Citizens United and others has opened the barn door to unlimited “dark money” campaign spending. Cases like Citizens gross me and most everyone else out because the result is the money in your politics becomes the voice in your politics. Americans’ right “to redress” comes at a cost, and if you don’t have the cash, chances are you’ll be ignored.
Bottom line: Those with the most money have the largest voices. Those with the least are rarely part of the process. That makes the legality of the practice of lobbying less relevant because it’s an uneven playing field.
My career in lobbying started with civil service
One doesn’t just become a lobbyist. There’s no college major or curriculum for it like studying law or medicine. Instead, you have to get a job in government. You have to become a cog in the wheel, and you have to learn the tricks of the trade, so to speak.
My career path was frankly the perfect road map to becoming a lobbyist. I started as an unpaid intern in the Senate and rose up through the ranks. Then I became the staff director for a Senate banking subcommittee and worked on important pieces of legislation like Sarbanes Oxley, put in place as an answer to Enron and its greed.
But the most important thing I did every day was to sit my ass on the floor of the Senate. I learned everything there is to know about how to make the Senate function smoothly, and, of course, the opposite: how to gum up the place so it came to a grinding halt. Both are equally effective when you’re in the business of dealmaking and getting legislation across the finish line or not.
But then something changed. The Senate became more of a place where you’d hear, “I object!” than it was a place where you’d hear, “The bill is passed.” And that’s why I got the hell out. Deals weren’t the norm. They became the exception.
So after six-plus years in the Senate, I “sold out” in 2003. I took everything I knew, every contact I’d made, every deal I’d struck in my political career and cashed in to become a good ol’ lobbyist.
I had fun at first. Unlimited expense accounts, nights out on the town, expensive bottles of wine, elaborate meals with sitting senators and Congress members — that was my life.
I attended fundraising breakfasts that led to committee hearings with the same Congress members or senators — a meeting that cost me or my political action committee a hefty $2,500 voting on the very legislation we’d talked about over bacon and eggs that morning.
Then there’d be a lunch fundraiser with a different Congress member, paid for by another $2,500 check to discuss the issues my clients cared about. Then they’d go and vote on those issues. It was an endless cycle of money trading hands for votes.
It’s a wonder members of the House and Senate actually have time to legislate when they spend so much of their damn time raising money.
Here’s how a legal “bribe” goes down in Congress
There’s always a subtleness that comes with campaign checks and public policy. But sometimes the subtlety goes away. When I was representing the wine and spirits distributors, I had scheduled a meeting with a member of the Nevada delegation. I had two of my Nevada clients with me, and we sat waiting patiently in the member’s reception area before I was summoned into his office.
I was asked to leave my clients in the lobby for the time being. When I entered his office, he stood up and shook my hand, and then asked me point blank: “Jimmy, we’ve called your PAC fundraiser on numerous occasions, and she hasn’t returned our calls. So why exactly are you here for a meeting?”
He held in front of me a call sheet with the times and dates both he and his fundraiser had called us for donations. They were highlighted in yellow. And my only response was, “I don’t know, Congressman, but I’ll take care of it.” He told me he hoped so and then said I could bring my clients into his office. They walked in, we sat down as if nothing had happened, he said he supported every one of our pertinent legislative issues, and then we all shook hands and walked out. Now this guy is no longer a member of Congress, but he supported my clients’ interest — and the legislation my clients wanted eventually passed the House and Senate and was signed into law.
How easy could an all-but-basic bribe have been, really? In a cab back to the office, I thought, “Oh, my God, did that just happen to me?” Thank God nothing quite as explicit ever happened again after that — but the winking and the nodding, that kept going and going and going.
Over the years, the work began to weigh on me. Every fundraiser was yet another legal bribe. Every committee hearing I’d look up and think, “I just bought his vote.” And every time I got a bill passed or, better yet, killed, I’d think to myself, “That wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t bought the outcome.”
This is what I was doing Monday through Friday for basically 52 weeks of the year, excluding congressional recesses and holidays. Put yourself in my shoes. Think you could handle it? Think your bank account could handle it? Better yet, think your conscience, your morals could handle it?
Mine couldn’t. I couldn’t bear the thought of playing the game. Maybe it would’ve been better if Congress actually gave a damn about your issues, what your clients had to say. But they often don’t. All too often, they just care about the money.
After eight years of paying for meetings with politicians, I had to get out. I sat on Nantucket with the guy I was dating at the time, and we talked about how gross it all was. At that point, MSNBC had offered me a decent contract as a “talking head,” and while it was way less than what I was making as a lobbyist, I just did it.
I got out and never looked back.
This isn’t a right or left issue. It affects everyone in Washington.
Know this: Lobbyists are not bad people. They’re simply doing their jobs, and those jobs are not only legal but protected by the First Amendment. The political left loves to shit all over lobbyists, but they dial for dollars just like their Republican brethren. And as for the political right? Well, at least they make no bones about paying to play. It’s “free speech by God. The Supreme Court makes it so!”
Blah blah blah. The hypocrisy from both sides is staggering.
President after president, including Trump, has decried the influence of money and lobbyists. And they’re right on the money. But that’s their biggest problem: They all decry the money yet beg for it like they’re in some Dickens novel: “Please, sir, may I have some more?”
The problem in this country isn’t our politicians left or right. It’s the money they can’t live without. If you really want Washington to change, then you should push to get rid of money in politics. It will take a constitutional amendment or a radical shift in the makeup of the Supreme Court, but hey, we've done both before.
And stop bitching about lobbyists, for Pete's sake. Stop crapping all over them for representing you, the American people, after they leave government service.
Oh, and by the way, if you really care, do something about it. After all, you're the people, and that's whom politicians fear the most.
Jimmy Williams is the host of DecodeDC in the Scripps Washington Bureau. He is a former MSNBC contributor and longtime Senate staffer and lobbyist.
Correction: Updated to reflect the correct legislation, Sarbanes Oxley, that Williams worked on while he was in government.