Transcript

Citizen K Street

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Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Wednesday, March 14, 2007; 12:00 PM

Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Wednesday, March 14 at noon ET to discuss Citizen K Street, his serialized profile of Gerald S.J. Cassidy, who helped turn lobbying into Washington's biggest business.

The transcript follows.

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Portland, Ore.: I see Cassidy now has a blog which he advertises with a paid banner ad in the politics section of washingtonpost.com. Have you read it? He takes shots at you/the series/The Post. Did you read in his carping anything other that the expected claptrap?

Robert G. Kaiser: First good day to everyone tuning in. We're grateful for your interest in this project.

Cassidy's blog is, I think, unprecedented. So, I guess, is this project. We have a striking degree of interactivity going.

You can find the blog by clicking here. Please have a look. Mr. Cassidy enjoys the full rights of an American citizen, including the right to take shots at us. We're glad he's doing this.

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Alexandria, Va.: Why did you change focus of this story from a broad look at lobbying to a singular focus on Cassidy? What was the decision process to force Cassidy & Associates front-and-center for the series?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this good question. I'm not sure where you got the idea that the focus changed; from the introduction onward, we have been using the story of Cassidy and his firm as a way to tell the modern history of lobbying. Of course no one example can be universal, but the history of this firm and of Cassidy personally seemed to me quite compelling, and a useful narrative device.

The history is interesting, at least to me. Early on I learned that Cassidy had filed an "S1" with the SEC in 1998 when he wanted to take his company public -- that is, sell shares in it on a stock exchange. This was a revealing document, and a great starting point for my reporting.

As I did more reporting, I realized that Cassidy and the firm had been involved in numerous interesting developments over the years, and indeed had helped shape the history of lobbying.

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Nashville, Tenn.: There really is no way to stop the lobby animal now that it is out of its cage, or so I see it. Seems that those who benefit are congressmen and lobbyists, and neither will push for changes. I hate to be a downer on this thing, but do you have any idea of how to put it back in the box? Please do not say the "public must demand it," as public has given up on "it"(Congress and lobbyists and money). Is there any way to stop it that is practical?

Robert G. Kaiser: "The lobby animal" is as old as the Republic. The Constitution protects the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, and lobbyists will all tell you that that's what they do. The issues you touch on are big ones, but also very susceptible to oversimplification. Personally I don't think it is possible to take money out of politics, or to take lobbying out of Washington.

So what can be done? I'll leave it to the editorial writers to make specific suggestions, but the reporter in me knows that transparency almost always has a good effect. The more we can know about what lobbyists do, how they help politicians, how they ask for and receive favors, whatever, the more we can report, and the more citizens can know. What citizens do with their knowledge is not a reporter's responsibility!

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Washington: You helped Taiwan's president Lee Teng-Hui to gain a visa to enter the U.S., and Lee delivered a speech at Cornell University on the subject of democracy. Lee's speech irritated China, which waged a war game against Taiwan. The crisis eventually was calmed down by the U.S., which sent two aircraft carriers to the nearby Strait of Taiwan. Do you have any reflection on this kind of lobbying objective, i.e. the possibility of triggering international crises?

Robert G. Kaiser: This questioner thought Gerry Cassidy was answering questions today, but it's just me. Sorry.

There's an upcoming chapter devoted entirely to this subject. I asked Mr. Cassidy this question, and the answer is in the chapter. Look for it!

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Washington: Has The Post ever done something like this before, putting a long series online and not in the paper? Have any other newspapers?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a first. Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but I think I was the co-author of what was previously the longest series in the history of The Post, a 10-part extravaganza on "Russia's Changing Empire" that I wrote with my colleague Dan Morgan. But it ran entirely in the paper, in 1973.

This time we are experimenting. Will readers be interested in a serialization of this kind, which begins and ends in the Sunday Post, but is published mostly on our Web site? We'll learn a lot from the answers to that question.

And we will get a good answer, because the computer can count exactly how many people read these stories. When we publish long series in the paper, there's never a way to know how many people actually read them. This time we will know.

There have been precedents of narrative series in other newspapers. The Philadelphia Inquirer did Black Hawk Down, a 28-part series that became a movie. The San Francisco Chronicle a few years ago published "Grape", a history of a bottle of California wine, which was really a history of the state's wine industry. It was 38 parts, even longer than Citizen K Street.

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Dayton, Ohio: I just want to say "bravo" to The Post for bringing back serialized long works in the newspaper -- good enough for Charles Dickens, good enough for the 21st century. I hope we see a lot more of this.

As to the earmarking, I'm surprised that so many universities are able to get away with this. There's something squirrelly about a state-supported university spending lots of money with lobbyists in order to secure federal funding. Why didn't any of the various Regents boards apply the sniff test to these arrangements?

Robert G. Kaiser: I hadn't seen this question when I answered the last one! Thanks for your support.

I too was taken aback when I realized what had developed regarding earmarks for universities, including public ones. But as the series will make clear, the system is deeply ingrained now.

As we've reported, it began after the executive branch all but eliminated federal support for the construction of facilities for colleges and universities, which had previously gotten some funding. In the late '70s, when Schlossberg-Cassidy started doing earmarks for profit, members of Congress hadn't thought of the idea, but quickly came to like it. This is not surprising: What member wouldn't like to have his picture taken cutting the ribbon for a new chem lab at his local college, made possible by his legislative prowess in Congress?

Regents and boards of trustees found it hard to say no to money from Washington. I think a lot of people share that problem.

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Washington: How deeply did you explore the employee ownership scheme that Cassidy used to first cash out? I have heard that it involved paying employee retirement contributions into a plan that could only invest in Cassidy and Associates stock, thus having employees to buy him out with their retirement savings. How have employees fared under the employee ownership, then the sale to Interpublic -- not just the senior members, but the less-compensated employees?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a question from an insider, obviously, and the references won't be easy for the rest of you to understand. Let me just say that these subjects are all considered in upcoming chapters, in some detail. Mr. Cassidy's financial maneuvers have been numerous and very lucrative. Stay tuned.

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Washington: How is the lobbying system not legalized bribery, and wouldn't ending lobbying by the rich empower the rest of us and revitalize our democracy?

Robert G. Kaiser: How would you end it? Isn't lobbying a form of speech? Isn't speech protected by the First Amendment?

And keep in mind, though many lobbyists do represent rich corporations, there are also many representing labor unions, teachers, non-profits, environmental groups, civil liberties advocates and so on. Even newspapers have lobbyists.

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Portland, Ore.: Any second thoughts or doubts on how you handled the issue of the Cassidys not having children?

Robert G. Kaiser: As I've said in the blog, I regret not asking Cassidy to comment on the quote I used from Kenneth Schlossberg about his memory of a conversation with the Cassidys many years ago. He should have had a chance to comment on it.

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Alexandria, Va.: It has been reported that the top lobbyists have access to a "fee schedule" that lists the amount of money a member of Congress requires in order to provide the legislation that the lobbyist wants. Do you have a copy of this fee schedule, and how can a non-paying member of the public gain access to it?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a reference to Duke Cunningham, the former House member now in jail for taking bribes. This is NOT a general phenomenon; there is no reason to believe that members in general are taking bribes.

What they do accept, of course, is political contributions to run their campaigns. Whether those constitute "bribes" is a hotly-debated subject. Some people have called it "legalized bribery," but it is the system that our laws permit.

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Washington: Could you respond to Silber's comments regarding your series?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think I want the series to stand for itself. You'll be reading more about Silber in coming installments.

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Pikesville, Md.: Is there anything you admire about lobbyists? Do you think they should be a part of our legislative process?

Robert G. Kaiser: Reporters who allow themselves to "admire" or the opposite the things they cover only get into trouble. I find the world of lobbying fascinating. Not surprisingly, the people who lobby are as disparate as the members of any profession--from sleazeballs to very sophisticated, intelligent people. Some of the people I've met have been impressive, thoughtful, and interesting. Others have made less positive impressions.

Should they be part of the process? I see no way to prevent it, constitutionally. And I have to say that the constitutional provisions that protect lobbyists are the same ones that protect free journalism. I like them.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Kaiser, I read you have a book deal. Will you be like other Post reporters and save the juiciest stuff for the book, or will this series tell all you know? And is your book all about Gerry Cassidy?

Robert G. Kaiser: I do have a contract for a book. I am not holding back "juicy stuff" to put into it. The book will be quite different than this series, though it will rely on the Cassidy story as its narrative backbone. I will use that story to write about the profound changes I perceive in Washington and our national politics over the last generation--the period that Cassidy has been a lobbyist. I hope it will out next year, but I have to write it first.

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Baltimore: I've been reading this closely -- a really unique series. Seems there seems to be a lot of reporting that actually is occurring in the comments section, like John Silber's take. Any thoughts on incorporating their points into your story?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. We're watching the comments with great interest, hoping for new leads and new information. As a general proposition we don't discuss our on-going reporting processes at The Post, and I think that's the right way to dodge your particulars. But I urge people who know something about our story that they haven't read to send us an e-mail, or post on the blog under every chapter.

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Portland, Ore.: You wrote earlier in an answer about your long (make that really loooong) series on Russia in 1973 carried in print edition. I read it all at the time, and it was great reporting and analysis! Is that series archived somewhere where we can read it without paying The Post archiving fee to access?

Robert G. Kaiser: Many thanks. No, it was done in the pre-digital age, and is not available. Is it a sin against humanity to pay a little something for some good journalism? I hope not.

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New York: Riveting, absolutely riveting. And the writing is marvelous. So many of your reporters command attention because in addition to their reporting skills, you seem to hire for their ability to write compellingly. Cassidy's connection with the universities also opens up the next series: the change in the values of the university culture since the 1970s. Your thoughts on that, please?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you for the kind words. And you have a big idea! It sounds like another book. It is intriguing to reflect on the fact, for example, that Harvard now has a $20 billion endowment--that is serious money. The values of universities have obviously been transformed, as have the values of many American institutions in this prosperous age.

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Bristol, Conn.: The Post recently told its reporters to write shorter stories, and The Post's Web site recently implored its employees to come up with out-of-the-box ideas for spotlighting all the daily features the site produces. Why, then, is The Post running this never ending, 95-part serialized book online? Isn't there a good reason people don't read books online?

Robert G. Kaiser: This isn't a book, it's a serial of 1500-2000 words pieces. You are of course free to ignore it; happily a lot of people seem to be reading it.
You have oversimplified the recent editors' directive on story length. I used to write those memos myself when I was The Post's managing editor in the '90s. The problem is not length per se; the problem is stories that ought to be short that get into the paper at medium length, and medium-length stories that are written long. The Post will always publish compelling long-form journalism, I am confident.

Some subjects don't lend themselves to short stories. Our ambition here is to really illuminate the world of lobbying by telling, impressionistically to be sure, the 30-year history of one lobbyist and his firm. We are experimenting to see if that subject interests people, and if we can use the Web effectively to tell it.

For the record, this one is 27 parts, not 95.

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Washington: What are you trying to say about lobbying with this series? Why is this subject worthy of so much attention?

Robert G. Kaiser: Our goal,as always, is to explain a phenomenon, not take a position on it. Lobbying is worth our attention because it has become such a huge industry, and because lobbyists have come to play such an important role in electoral politics, because of the money they contribute. Though I've been reporting in Washington for four decades, I was embarrassed to discover how little I understood about what lobbying really is, how it works and so on. From that experience I concluded that a lot of other people must not know that much about the subject either. Hence my interest in doing this project.

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Fairfax, Va.: In his blog, there's a link to a letter Cassidy sent to another paper, saying that the reporting system for lobbying does not capture other aspects of influence peddling, mainly the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), or lobbyists who represent foreign governments rather than domestic constituencies of Congress. To me this is a fascinating and under-reported aspect of the D.C. game. Does your series touch on this, or have you ever considered doing an in-depth look at this issue?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question. FARA lobbying does deserve more attention. Interestingly, filings at the Justice Department under FARA often provide more detail than you can get from filings under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. This is certainly a subject we will be looking at.

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Washington: We can see what they will do for money -- what have they done because it was right, for no money but for the greater good of America?

Robert G. Kaiser: One of the people I talked to for this series was Susan O'Neill, daughter of the late Speaker, Tip O'Neill. She is an event planner who raises a lot of money for charities. And she told me that lobbyists can contribute a great deal of money. She says Gerry Cassidy is one of the most generous in town.

Is that "for the greater good?" You'll have to decide. Chapter 21, I think it is, is devoted to Cassidy's charitable works.

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Washington: On the blog under your stories, there's a lot of denunciation of lobbyists as evil forces in American life. What do you make of the lobbyists' role?

Robert G. Kaiser: I've answered this above, I think. I will however take this opportunity to say that some of the vituperation on the blog makes little sense to me. Our blogs are great when they are used (as they often are) for smart discussion and comment, but vituperation doesn't do much for me or, I suspect, most other readers.

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Real Patriot, America: Lobbyist are terrorists and fascist and should be treated as such.

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's a good example of what I was just talking about.

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Alexandria, Va.: While I realize that the series's focus is on Cassidy, will you provide some coverage of "good" lobbyists, or "typical" lobbyists? I am tired of hearing comments that equate "lobbying" to being a dirty word.

Robert G. Kaiser: We're not trying to make any value judgments about lobbying or Cassidy in this series -- we're trying to explain how lobbying had worked, and how this firm developed.

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Milford, Conn.: Following the jailing of a Governor and his cronies, Connecticut has enacted reforms to restrict gift-giving by folks doing business with the state. Why can't Washington follow suit? Connecticut's government was a model for the U.S. Constitution.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the question. In fact there are strict limits on gift-giving to members of Congress now in force, and they recently got stricter. There are also limits on the contributions one person (a lobbyist, for example) can give to a member's campaign. But there is no limit on how much you, or I, can raise from friends and associates for a particular candidate, and that's a loophole that is widely exploited.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks to all for the questions, and for reading the series. We'll be back to do this again before it's over.

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