WASHINGTON – K Street bisects the nation's capital on a route that stretches from tony Georgetown through the city's business district into a working-class neighborhood. But "K Street" also is a state of mind. It has long been invoked as shorthand for the monied lobbyists who ply influence in this town from offices scattered along the avenue or nearby.
Now, as an influence-peddling scandal unfolds in Washington, the doings of K Street lobbyists and their interactions with Congress and the Bush administration are under heightened scrutiny. And a Republican initiative known as the "K Street Project" is fast becoming a whipping-child.
Democrats and even some Republicans are vowing to shut down the effort, others in the GOP are rushing to put it at arm's length and all sides are trying to define it to their own advantage.
The idea behind the project was simple, says its creator, conservative activist Grover Norquist: Encourage trade associations and corporations to hire lobbyists who have compatible views on lower taxes and less government regulation.
Ultimately, that goal translated into an aggressive -- some say hardball -- effort to pack the ranks of industry lobbyists with Republicans and weed out Democrats, who Norquist says are more philosophically suited to a labor union than a corporate conference room.
"Over time, everyone at the AFL-CIO should be a Democrat and everyone on K Street should be a Republican," Norquist declared in 2002, when the effort was in its heyday after the GOP had added control of the White House to its domination of Congress.
Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, who championed the project as House majority leader after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, fed the brass-knuckles image.
"We're just following the old adage of punish your enemies and reward your friends," DeLay said in 1995. "We don't like to deal with people who are trying to kill the revolution. We know who they are. The word is out."
Norquist circulated reports identifying lobbyists by party affiliation, political contributions and past employment, drawing complaints from Democrats of intimidation and McCarthyism. The Senate ethics committee issued a letter in 2002 warning senators that such a list "suggests a motive to grant special access, or deny access ... and tends to adversely affect public confidence in the Senate." The letter was interpreted as a slap at top Republicans, including Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, for consulting with conservatives about the lists.
Nowadays, the K Street Project's Web site still carefully tracks who's been hired and what lobbying positions are up for grabs, displaying the names of Republican lobbyists and their allies in red print and Democrats in blue. Employment updates routinely make mention of which political parties the lobbyists have contributed money to in the past.
Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said in an interview that he launched the K Street Project in the 1980s after he saw an ad from a Fortune 500 company looking to hire a Democrat -- and only a Democrat -- to represent its interests in Washington. "It reminded me of 'Irish need not apply' ads," he said. The operation is run from his tax-reform advocacy office, with one of his employees working on it part time, he said.
His effort gained real momentum after Republicans regained control of Congress, but Norquist says many of the activities attributed to the K Street Project actually are independent of it.
With the broader K Street effort attracting growing criticism, the Senate Republican Conference said last week it would no longer circulate a list of job openings and potential employees at its twice-monthly meetings with lobbyists. Norquist said that effort was separate from the "real" K Street Project.
Whatever the name, critics paint a dark picture of the result, one in which Democratic lobbyists have been blacklisted from entering certain congressional offices, lobbying firms have been pressured to fire Democratic employees or face legislative retribution, and lobbyists have been squeezed for campaign contributions in return for access to GOP legislators.
The cash at stake is colossal: Federal lobbyists spent $2.1 billion in 2004.
Republicans have held a clear advantage over Democrats in receiving campaign contributions from lobbyists since 2002. That's a turnaround from the early 1990s, when lobbyists skewed their spending heavily toward Democrats when that party controlled the White House and Congress.
Republicans "basically made it a pay-to-play system," says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "It wasn't just that they said to fire Democratic lobbyists and only hire Republicans, it was, 'We won't talk to you if you aren't giving us money."'
Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta says the effort went far beyond a job bank. "In many cases, companies and trade associations were threatened with adverse government consequences if they hired Democrats," says Podesta.
Lawyer Lanny Davis, who served as special counsel to President Clinton and later worked as a lobbyist, recalls being ordered out of the office of a member of the House Republican leadership when he arrived to promote a piece of legislation.
"I was specifically told that I was unwelcome to participate in the meeting," said Davis, who declined to identify the GOP leader by name. "I was like a skunk at a garden party."
Republican legislators-turned-lobbyists maintain the shift to more GOP lobbyists has been a logical outgrowth of the changeover in Washington's power structure to Republican control after years of Democratic domination.
"What we were trying to do is ensure that there were qualified Republicans for jobs that were opening," said former Rep. Robert Walker, chairman of the bipartisan lobbying firm Wexler & Walker. "Virtually the entire downtown was staffed by Democrats. The only people they knew how to talk to were Democrats."
Former Republican Rep. Vin Weber, managing partner of another bipartisan lobbying firm, said: "It only made sense for businesses in town to hire more Republicans." The K Street Project may have accelerated that trend, he said, but heavy-handedness was the exception, not the norm.
Nonetheless, a few well-publicized dustups sent a clear message about the climate on Republican-controlled Capitol Hill.
In 1998, for example, DeLay lashed out at the Electronics Industries Alliance for hiring former Democratic Rep. Dave McCurdy as its president. Some Republicans drew a link between the hiring of McCurdy and delayed House action on legislation supported by the alliance. DeLay received a private letter of rebuke from the House ethics committee.
McCurdy plays down the flap now, saying, "That was six years ago. ... I've never had a problem with access to members on both sides of aisle." But neither was he surprised at the partisan flare-up over his hiring, saying, "I think after all the gray hair I've earned in this town, I'm not surprised by anything any longer."
In 2004, after the Motion Picture Association of America hired Democrat Dan Glickman to take over, more than $1 billion in tax credits sought by Hollywood were left out of a corporate tax bill. The trade group subsequently hired some Republicans to work under Glickman.
Now that DeLay is under indictment on campaign finance charges and lobbyist Jack Abramoff has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud charges, lobbying excesses are under the microscope.
Both parties are trying to claim high ground by pointing fingers at the K Street Project, and defenders of the effort are getting harder to come by.
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, among those vying to replace DeLay as majority leader, promised to shut down the project although he has long been known for his close ties to K Street.
In the Senate, Democrats are calling for an investigation of the K Street initiative. And Santorum's association with the effort has been seized on by Pennsylvania Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., the leading Democrat trying to replace him in the Senate.