Whether you’re a company, a union, or an individual, to get your bennie—your perk—into a bill, the first thing you need to do is find a bill that’s going to get signed by the president. Ninety-nine percent of what’s proposed in Congress doesn’t make it to the White House, so you’re looking for one of the few bills that’s going to make it all the way through the House, the Senate, the conference committees, and wind up on the president’s desk. We call that a moving train. If you’re a lobbyist pushing something like this, you want your moving train to be a 2,000-plus-page bill. You want to find a way to sneak your bennie into a teeny boxcar in the back that nobody’s going to notice.
You’re not eager to have the world know about this, because then you’re on defense. So you’ll want to get the crafty legislative draftspeople to come up with some way of describing it that’s utterly and completely devoid of meaning to any normal intelligent person, and so narrowly targeted to a specific provision of the code that anyone else reading it won’t know what it is.
Then you need a quarterback. You need to figure out who’s managing the bill and make sure you’re close to them. Ideally, you already have a long-term relationship. You’re out playing golf with them every week or at the ballgame or baby-sitting their kids. You talk about your provision not as a bennie for you or your client but rather say that it’s good for society and makes life better for the planet. You explain why this is the best thing that’s happened to the U.S. since the Declaration of Independence.
In most cases, you won’t worry about members of Congress who are opposed to you. If you do your job right, they’ll only find out about it once it’s already the law. If you get into a firefight with your opposition early, you’re likely to lose—especially on something that’s so obviously a bennie—and you’ll wind up with a time- and cash-consuming battle. After all, the provision is something you’ve been trying to sneak into a bill. Once your opponent shines some light, you’re toast. If the provision is a biggie, you’ll have to do some work with the administration, make sure they’re not gunning for your perk. But if it’s not something likely to raise international headlines, you’re probably going to be fine.
If you’re good at this game, you’ve provided your congressional quarterback with everything under the sun—including fundraisers, golf outings, travel, meals, and premium event tickets. Now you’re on your way. The American people may not know the details of what you just did, but they kind of suspect it’s happening and they hate it. And they should hate it, since it’s killing our country. Unfortunately, until we can change this system, that’s how the sausage is made. —As told to Joshua Green
• Abramoff is a former lobbyist and the author of Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist.