BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Bill Thomas, where did you get the title "Club Fed?"
BILL THOMAS, AUTHOR, "CLUB FED" Club Med -- "Club Fed." It occurred to me that a lot of the time on Capitol Hill is spent not doing the work of the public but really playing at being a public servant, and the title sort of grew naturally out of that thought.
LAMB: What does it mean?
THOMAS: Maybe some of your viewers know this, but most people don't realize that the typical congressional work week lasts from sometime Tuesday morning until sometime Thursday afternoon. The congressional weekend is a little longer in most cases than the congressional work week. Club Fed is meant to suggest that all of the activity that goes on on Capitol Hill wouldn't fall under the heading of public service, but self-service and, in many cases, recreation.
LAMB: Let me from time to time take the other side just for the purpose of discussion. If a member were sitting here, they'd say, "Mr. Thomas, you don't know what you're talking about. I leave here on Thursday. I fly back to my district. I spend Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday morning in constituent service, going to dinners, speaking to service clubs, handshaking, office hours, town meetings. I'm exhausted."
THOMAS: I'm sure they are. What I tried to do here was write an entertaining book about a subject that most people take, I think, too seriously. I began with the assumption that politics is show business, and, for the most part, politicians are actors or performance artists -- some in the best sense; some are really nothing more than lounge acts. But a lot of what is called work on Capitol Hill is really performance, and I'm sure they get tired after a weekend back in their districts or wherever they are, raising money or trying to influence people, but it's not work in the way that most people think of work. It's performing, it's acting, it's raising money, it's putting on a show.
LAMB: Where are you from?
THOMAS: I'm from Chicago. Grew up here in Washington, however, and have lived here off and on for most of my life.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
THOMAS: I went to school at the University of Washington in Seattle.
LAMB: What did you study?
THOMAS: Comparative literature. Taught there for a while. Taught at Goucher College in Baltimore until around 1975 and have been writing ever since. Worked for the Baltimore Sun, was a reporter for the Sun for about five years. Worked at Congressional Quarterly. Worked at Roll Call and still occasionally do some things for Roll Call, and most recently have worked for the L.A. Times Sunday magazine.
LAMB: What is Roll Call?
THOMAS: Roll Call is a -- how can I put this? Roll Call is a newspaper. It's a little like the Wall Street Journal. It covers goings-on on Capitol Hill. It comes out a couple of times a week. It combines a little bit of nuts-and-bolts Hill reporting with reporting on Hill sociology. It's a little bit like the Hollywood Reporter in some sense. It keeps track of the industry and it reports on personalities in the news on Capitol Hill and it has fun with politics.
LAMB: How long did you work there?
THOMAS: I started there when Jim Glassman and I came to Roll Call after Arthur Levitt bought it in 1986, I think, or 87 and stayed with Roll Call until about 1990, when I got a contract to write an earlier book.
LAMB: You thank Sid Udayne, who used to own Roll Call.
THOMAS: Great guy.
LAMB: You say also that in interviewing Sid Udayne that he wants to go back to the old days.
THOMAS: I think he does. Sid created Roll Call in 1959. Sid had actually been working in Hollywood doing some work for the Hollywood Reporter and the Hollywood Citizen News. I don't know if that exists any longer, but it was sort of a Hollywood community newspaper. Sid liked politics, but he realized very quickly that there wasn't any sort of community newspaper for Capitol Hill in the early 50s or mid-'50s. He came here and started Roll Call. Sid actually discovered a lot of big talents along the way in putting together the early Roll Call, one of whom was Mark Russell, whom he discovered working in a strip bar in Washington, the Club Maryland. Sid nurtured Mark Russell. Mark Russell did some writing for the early Roll Call, and they're still great friends.
LAMB: But the point I wanted to make was that you said that he sold it to . . .
THOMAS: He sold Roll Call in 1986, late 85, 86, to Arthur Levitt, who's now the FCC chairman.
LAMB: But you said for $500,000.
THOMAS: Somewhere around there.
LAMB: And then Arthur Levitt sold it to the Economist for $15 million?
THOMAS: Somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million, yes.
LAMB: From 1986 to 1993 or so?
THOMAS: That made some money.
LAMB: How could you go from a publication on Capitol Hill of being worth a half a million dollars to being worth $15 million?
THOMAS: Well, advertising picked up. Let's put it that way.
LAMB: Where does the advertising come from?
THOMAS: A lot of the advertising in Roll Call, and a lot of advertising in newspapers that cover Capitol Hill, is advertising meant to influence Congress, corporations speaking to legislators and speaking to lawmakers, a lot of corporate vanity ads -- ads intended to influence opinion makers, lawmakers in one way or another. You find a lot of this sort of thing in National Journal, Congressional Quarterly, Roll Call, and there's a new publication on Capitol Hill called The Hill. Now you see a lot of it in there.
LAMB: Are you a party member, a Republican or Democrat?
THOMAS: No, I'm independent.
LAMB: What do you think of politicians in general, just personally.
THOMAS: Personally, I find them fascinating, to tell you the truth. I find people that go into politics very interesting people. It's a mystery to me what makes them tick. I love to talk to them about their ambitions and where they're coming from. I had an opportunity a couple of years ago to cover the congressional orientation for the L.A. Times magazine and spent about a week and a half with new members of Congress. It was interesting to watch them become, in effect, congressmen and congresswomen over the period of this two- or three-week training session. They came to Capitol Hill one day, kind of raw rookies. You could see they were intimidated, many of them a little awed by the whole thing, but after really being introduced to the club, as it were, you watched them become members of Congress. What motivates people to go into politics? I couldn't begin to tell you, but I like to watch politicians perform. I like to watch them in the act of being politicians. I remember a friend of mine told me a story once about having a conversation with Charlie Rose.
LAMB: The congressman?
THOMAS: Congressman. We should make that distinction. Not the talk-show host, the congressman from North Carolina, a very powerful guy on Capitol Hill. He's head of the House Administration Committee; in fact, runs the congressional orientation program. But this friend was having a conversation with Rose, and behind Rose was C-SPAN playing, and it was a tape of the previous day's activity on Capitol Hill. Every time Rose came on the television set behind Rose, he would stop his conversation and turn around and watch himself. When he was finished speaking, get back to his conversation. It's that sort of thing. I guess you might call it a psychological impulse to be a politician that I find really interesting about politics and about people who go into it.
LAMB: When was the last word written by you in this book?
THOMAS: That's a good question. Sometime in maybe the middle of June, end of June, somewhere in there.
LAMB: A lot's happened since you wrote this.
THOMAS: Well, it's happened. I tried to squeeze in as much as I possibly -- maybe July. I'm not quite sure. But I tried to get in as much as I could about Whitewater and health care at the last minute.
LAMB: Let me pick Chapter 13, Tony Coehlo. Before Tony Coehlo came back to this town, you wrote a lot about him. You interviewed him. What was the point?
THOMAS: Tony Coehlo's a very interesting guy. When Tony Coehlo left Congress under a cloud in 1989 -- some of your viewers may recall that Tony Coehlo was involved in a junk bond deal with a Beverly Hills investment broker, and it was right around the time that Jim Wright had gotten into trouble. Tony Coehlo, for whatever reason, decided it would be better just to leave rather than have to go through an Ethics Committee hearing. He had befriended John Mack, a lobbyist. He'd been an investment partner with Mack in a couple of real estate deals in California. Mack had worked for Wright, and Mack, it was revealed in a Washington Post story, had beaten up a woman in Virginia 17 years earlier and gotten a very light prison sentence after his trial, and Wright had helped with lessening the sentence, apparently, in Mack's case. Coehlo was defending Mack. And 1989 was a very bad year for Democrats, and things were getting very messy.
Coehlo had left Congress, and he went to work for Wertheim Schroeder, a New York investment firm, and I thought he'd make a very interesting profile story, and I did an interview with him and an article about him in Manhattan, Inc., Clay Felker's magazine, which no longer exists. In the five years since I'd done that story, Coehlo had become a very important figure in New York investment banking, and I thought it might be interesting to look at Tony Coehlo, who's the perfect example, in a way. What happens to somebody who's that powerful on Capitol Hill in a life after Congress? I went and interviewed him last October, I think it was, in New York in his office. We started talking about politics and investing, and you could see in the five years or so he'd been working in New York that he was chomping at the bit to get back into politics.
He told me at the time he'd been talking to people like Newt Gingrinch and Bill Clinton, and he'd really never lost touch with Washington. He lives in Alexandria, which is not too far from Capitol Hill, and he spent his weekends here and tried to get back to Washington as often as he could. We talked about money; we talked about his background, his Jesuit school seminary training, his relationship with Bob Hope, which he credits with saving him from a few early mistakes that he'd made in his life. Actually he credits Bob Hope with suggesting he get into politics, and he said when he had some problems in politics in 1989, he called Bob Hope, asked him what he should do, and he said Hope suggested that he get into investment banking. He's a source of good advice. But we got into money . . .
LAMB: Can I read a quote?
THOMAS: Yes, please.
LAMB: "'What is government?' Tony Coehlo asked. It's a money game, but everybody in Congress is embarrassed to talk about it. They're embarrassed by the money they give out, embarrassed by the money they raise, embarrassed to vote for their own salaries. To me it was a big facade. Everybody knew what they were doing. They just pretended they were doing something else, that the game they were playing was about public policy when in reality it's all about money."
THOMAS: Well, it's hard to disagree with that, considering that members of Congress have to raise about $17,000 a week in order to pay for reelection campaigns. It is about money.
LAMB: Are you agreeing with him that everything over there is about money?
THOMAS: It's about access to money. I'd say if you want to stay on the job, it's about raising enough money to be reelected. A congressman has two jobs or a senator has two jobs, performing a public service and, if he's interested in staying on the job, getting reelected. And that effort starts on day one. Again, going back to the freshman orientation program that I witnessed a couple of years ago, you can see that interest in raising money and trying to find out ways to raise money, earn money for your reelection campaign starts on day one. Sure, politics is all about money. Tony Coehlo knows that, and here's probably one of the biggest money-raisers in recent Democratic Party history.
LAMB: Does the public at large, as you've traveled around and talked about your book, know this?
THOMAS: I don't think they -- I think they're getting wise. I think they getting wise, and they know that something has to -- I think people, the voting public, whatever you want to call that group out there that elects members of Congress and the Senate year after year after year, these people out in the country are realizing that something has to be done to control access to money and the way money has become so much a part of politics. It seems as though the best they've come up with so far, whether it's constitutional or not, is term limits. I think people are upset about the way money is spent and what money is spent on and the way money has become so much a part of what politics is today. Tony Coehlo probably wouldn't have said what he said to me a year ago, today. There was a profile of him recently in one of the papers -- I think it was the New York Times or Washington Post; I can't recall which -- very, very careful about what he said, but I thought that was a pretty revealing comment.
LAMB: Is this an honest town?
THOMAS: Well, truth in Washington, of course, is always fluid, and spoken truth here tends to be what works. Politics is the art of motivating people to do what you want them to do, whether it's vote for you, support an issue, turn up at a rally, appear at a demonstration. This is all part of Washington show business. I mean, Washington is a town for performing, whether it's performing at a demonstration in front of the Supreme Court, rallying around some cause on the Capitol steps, appearing at a luncheon speech at the National Press Club, talking to constituents, entertaining constituents, putting flags out in the hallway. Washington is a town full of actors of one sort or another, and acting is the art of presenting illusions, and that's what politics really is or has become.
LAMB: You say, "Financial service, not eloquence, is the ultimate measure of success in Congress." What's that mean?
THOMAS: Well, once again, providing constituent service. Now, constituent service can take many forms, as you know -- giving people back home the money they need to build airports, roads, factories. Constituent service is helping people locate their Social Security checks, and constituent service is building superhighways. A very funny about Robert Byrd when he was running for reelection in the late 80s against a sort of upstart West Virginia lawyer. The upstart West Virginia lawyer, a guy named Jay Wolf, decided that Byrd wasn't bringing enough money back to the state, and he would teach him a lesson by walking the state, which is a typical campaign move. But he'd walk the state of West Virginia from the panhandle to the Ohio River to demonstrate to the people that his commitment would be to bring more money to West Virginia faster than Byrd had been doing it and that Byrd was declining in age and Byrd just wasn't providing West Virginia with the kind of money that it had been used to getting from the government.
This guy would walk a mile and Byrd would fund another highway. Every day the guy was on his trek across West Virginia, Byrd funneled more and more money into the state. Finally by the time the poor fellow, Jay Wolf, gets to the Ohio River, Byrd had dumped about $16 million into West Virginia. Byrd won; he lost. That's how members of Congress get reelected. You do financial favors for the folks back home. Whether the favors are for individuals and small, or for fat cats and large favors, that's one of the ways you ingratiate yourself to the people.
LAMB: This book is put out by Scribner's. How did it all start?
THOMAS: Well, it started with a conversation that I had with my agent, Henry Dunow, about maybe two and half years ago. We were kicking around the subject of a book on Capitol Hill, a book on Washington. At the time, I had just come back from Moscow, where I had been working on an earlier book and had just finished that, a book on capitalism in the new Russia. We were joking about Russia's attempts to become a democracy, and one thing led to another and the idea for a book on Capitol Hill was generated. We went to talk to an editor at Scribner's, who liked the idea. At the time, we were sort of kicking around this notion that 1994 -- Clinton had not been elected yet. It was early in the primary season, as I recall, or maybe in the summer towards the end of the primary season. We all sort of got the idea that the 1994 congressional election would be a referendum of some sort on congressional behavior, congressional ethics. Nobody had any idea at the time, certainly none of us had any idea at the time that it would become the national referendum on Washington that it's become.
LAMB: Dedicated "for Brendan." Who's that?
THOMAS: That's my son.
LAMB: Where is he?
THOMAS: He lives here in Washington, and he goes to a high school here in suburban Maryland.
LAMB: How old is he?
THOMAS: Sixteen years old, works on the high school newspaper.
LAMB: Going to do the same thing as his father?
THOMAS: I don't know. He's a good writer.
LAMB: Some of the things in here come pretty close to home for this network, and I want to read one. You and I have never met each other, so . . .
THOMAS: No, never.
LAMB: "The gallery also contains eight remote control television cameras bolted down at key angles that cover the place from wall to wall as if it were a convenience store in a high crime neighborhood, which, in a way, is what it is." What are you talking about?
THOMAS: Well, in a sense, Capitol Hill is one-stop shopping for people looking around for favors, and, of course, it's the place where members of Congress are always shopping around for financial favors from supporters. But Capitol Hill is a dangerous place. I was reminded immediately, the first time I saw the -- "your," I should say, television cameras . . .
LAMB: No, they're not ours.
THOMAS: They're not yours?
LAMB: They belong to the House and they belong to the Senate.
THOMAS: You lease them?
THOMAS: They belong to the House and Senate? You run it? How does that work?
LAMB: No, they run it. All we do is plug in like any other news organization.
THOMAS: You plug in?
LAMB: Just plug in. Anybody has access to it.
THOMAS: Well, when I saw the cameras, I was reminded immediately of a 7-11 and the way when you go into the 7-11 to buy a burrito burger or something like that, you're being followed by this little minicam. The cameras move; there are no cameramen in there. They sort of move independent of any human operator. It immediately struck me, this place is just like a 7-11 and these are like anti-theft devices. When you think of the sort of place Capitol Hill is, if you live in Washington you know it's a fairly -- well, Washington is a fairly dangerous city. There are a couple of car-jackings every week and violent crime all over the place. Capitol Hill is America's most politicized free-fire zone, in a sense. A very dangerous neighborhood and the danger takes many forms, and those cameras just caught my imagination.
LAMB: You say, "Most senators, it was clear by now, had no idea what they were voting on, which is the way Congress usually works."
THOMAS: I think the health care bill illustrated this pretty well. People were confessing at one point during the health care debate that they had no idea what was in any of these bills. They hadn't read them; they hadn't had time to really form intelligent opinions about anything. Legislation was flying so fast and furious, as it often does. Members will confess, often after they leave -- they'll tell you how chaotic, how impossible it is to read things, to know exactly what you're doing all the time, and they make these confessions conveniently when they decide to retire and go into lobbying or some other allied profession.
LAMB: In the back you say that in 1992, "Of the 121 departing members of Congress, more than 40 percent followed the path of least resistance into government relations, otherwise known as lobbying."
THOMAS: Well, the record speaks for itself there. Of course, that was a huge number of departing members. Some of the former members who are in lobbying will tell you that the field is becoming so saturated now with former members that it's difficult even for the most plugged-in ex-members of the House and Senate to sell their services to bidders after they get out of office. There are just a lot of ex-members looking to do what they do best or know best, and that's lobby their buddies back in Congress. I remember Guy Vanderjack said something very funny to me. I think he'd been in office for maybe 15 terms. I'm not quite sure, but a long-time Republican member of the House. He was defeated in the primary, and he said, "Well, it took me a while to get used to that. It was depressing and all, but I realized something. The guy who beat me did me a favor and did himself a favor. He tripled both of our salaries." There are lots of ways for congressmen who lose in primaries or general elections to come down from the sorrow of their defeat, but a lot of them stay in Washington doing what they've always done, which is selling influence or being available for consultation with people with money.
LAMB: What impact does it have that members can always go back on the floor of the House any time they want to?
THOMAS: It's amazing. Of course, that's a good way to lobby other members, to do what people who pay you to deliver their message want you to do.
LAMB: But they aren't allowed to lobby, supposedly.
THOMAS: Well, come on. They're there. Their influence is felt. They can lobby in the cloakroom. They can lobby in the hallways. They can go and sit and listen. They're members of a club. It's a club and as long as you play the game according to the rules of the system, you're a lifetime member.
LAMB: But a member recently who had served three months in jail . . .
THOMAS: Larry Smith from Florida.
LAMB: . . . came back to the floor in the cloakroom, and the speaker ordered him to stop doing whatever he was doing.
THOMAS: I don't know what he was doing, but it didn't look good. Reporters probably saw, but it goes on all the time.
LAMB: You say, "Lawmakers love when disaster strikes."
THOMAS: Money from heaven. Earthquakes, fires -- this gives members of Congress an opportunity to tack private bills on. This is one of the great charades on Capitol Hill. I talk about the Mississippi River flood last year in 1993. It took Congress over two and a half weeks to appropriate money needed to keep these people from going under all up and down the Mississippi Valley while members fought one another over private spending bills that were tacked on to this thing. There were bills to renovate railroad stations and bills to employ unemployed gang members and to teach people how to do this and that and the other thing. Meanwhile, these poor farm families out in the Mississippi Valley are treading water, waiting for Congress to help them. It became a huge scandal. But disasters are an opportunity. It's like congressional bingo in a way. It's an opportunity to tack on all kinds of private spending things to emergency relief legislation.
LAMB: Earlier in your introduction, you say, "The interests are joined at the wallet to 535 congressional profit centers." What do you mean by that? Do they make a profit in these offices?
THOMAS: Well, they have to raise money, and you can call that whatever you want. Congressional offices, members of Congress, as I said, have to make $15,000, $16,000, $17,000, $18,000, $20,000 a week to pay for their reelection campaigns, most of that money going to buying media, buying advertising.
LAMB: Now, you're not talking about every member of Congress, are you? Because 17,000 times . . .
THOMAS: We're talking average. Some of these races, some Senate races -- well, look at the Huffington-Feinstein race in California.
LAMB: But you're lumping the Senate and the House together.
THOMAS: Lumping the Senate and the House together.
LAMB: And taking an average?
THOMAS: Yes. Senate races are more expensive, depending on the state, depending on the size of the state. House races can run anywhere from a couple of hundred thousand dollars to over a million dollars. Michael Huffington spent a record $4.3 million to win his House seat in 92. He's spending $17- or $18 million -- who knows how much -- on his Senate race in California this year. It's expensive. If you want to win and win convincingly, it can be very expensive.
LAMB: On the back of the book, you have some endorsements. One of them is from Bill Proxmire. Was that your idea or Scribner's?
THOMAS: Don't know.
LAMB: Don't know?
THOMAS: Publishers send books out to people when a book is written. I'd suggested some names. I can't remember if I suggested Proxmire or not as somebody who might find this interesting, but they had some names. Publishing is show business, too. The publisher sent a manuscript of the book around or galleys of the book around to lots of people.
LAMB: He says, "I thought my 31 years in the Senate had taught me all I wanted to laugh about in Washington until I read Club Fed. How wrong I was. Bill Thomas makes our capital even more hysterically funny than I had ever realized." Did you mean this book to be funny?
THOMAS: I meant it to be entertaining. I'll tell you, Capitol Hill is a great source of entertainment. I think one of the reasons that people probably watch C-SPAN -- I know it's one of reasons I watch when something interesting on the Hill is going on -- it's fabulous entertainment. I.F. Stone once told me -- I was talking to him in connection with something I was doing a few years ago and we were talking about how amusing politics can be. He said, "The greatest source of amusement in politics is the public record. Look at the public record, and you will become addicted to the humor it contains." I found that to be true. But I wanted the book to be entertaining, but I wanted people to learn something from it and be informed. In literature, you want people to keep turning the pages, and the way to do that is to keep their interest and keep them entertained and informed probably at the same time. That's what I tried for.
LAMB: What do you find to be people's favorite chapter?
THOMAS: I've gotten a lot of comments on a chapter in there called "Caesar's Palace on the Potomac." I don't know how long I've heard the term "Hollywood on the Potomac" applied to Washington, but it's really more like Las Vegas, considering the money that has to brought in and the sort of what I like to call lounge act-style entertainment that goes on. But it's more like Las Vegas. It's more like a casino than a movie studio, although obviously there are a lot of movie studio aspects to it as well. But there's a prayer that begins that chapter. The Senate chaplain says a prayer . . .
LAMB: Want me to read it?
THOMAS: As you wish.
LAMB: "Sovereign Lord of history and the nations, we pray for the senators running for reelection." He's retiring, by the way, Reverend Halbers. "Give wisdom to those who direct their campaigns. Give the senators special persuasion in speech and provide wherever needed adequate campaign funds. We pray in His name, through whom Thou dost promise to supply all our needs, according to Your riches and glory. Amen."
THOMAS: Kind of gets you. That's a prayer on the Senate floor found in the Congressional Record. I wasn't there at the time, but it was in the Congressional Record. I'm assuming it was said on the Senate floor to open a session of that August body.
LAMB: Was it said with a straight face?
THOMAS: It was a prayer. I'm assuming eyes were bent towards heaven, at least on some people's parts. You know, if you watch the members of the House and Senate when these prayers are usually said, they're talking to one another and doing all sorts of things, but at this particular time I'm sure they were paying attention. These are the kinds of prayers that members of Congress fully expect to be answered, and, of course, for the more successful ones, they are.
LAMB: "Give wisdom to those who direct their campaigns. Give the senators special persuasion in speech and provide wherever needed adequate campaign funds." Is one side better than the other?
THOMAS: One side meaning Republicans or Democrats?
LAMB: Liberal or conservative, Republican, Democrat.
THOMAS: In what sense?
LAMB: In any sense. More honest . . .
THOMAS: It's all politics. You know, there is a difference between the two parties. It goes beyond name tags. But when it comes right down to it, they're there to preserve a system which keeps them in office, and they'll join together in prayer in this case or in allying themselves with one another to preserve their jobs. When it comes to changing the system, you'll find members of opposing parties agreeing more than disagreeing when the alternative is changing the system in ways that might eliminate their employment.
LAMB: You have expense reports for Campaign 98 filed with the Federal Election Commission during 1993. How did you find those?
THOMAS: The FEC.
LAMB: The Federal Election Commission. "Sen. Dale Bumpers, an Arkansas Democrat spent over $2,700 from his campaign fund to rent an apartment in Little Rock that serves as Bumpers' primary Arkansas residence." Is that legal?
THOMAS: If it's a campaign expense and if you can make an argument for the fact that this is a campaign expense, sure.
LAMB: "Senator Frank Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, was reimbursed by his campaign fund for more than $15,000 in unspecified plane fare and other travel expenses, including $305 for an overnight stay in Tokyo." What's wrong with that?
LAMB: Why did you list it there?
THOMAS: I think people should know. If it's a campaign expense, it's a campaign expense, but I think people should know that campaigns can go anywhere. Congressional committees can go to Barbados to discuss the implications of a tax bills with insurance lobbyists. Politicians travel far and wide in the effort to be reelected.
LAMB: "Senator John Burrough, a Louisiana Democrat who had $1.5 million left in his campaign treasury after the 92 elections" -- can they keep this forever?
THOMAS: It can carry over.
LAMB: "Paid himself $106,925 for travel, restaurant and entertainment expenses, all related to his reelection bid in 1998."
THOMAS: You have to start early.
LAMB: "Also reimbursed himself $1,500 that he paid to attend Mardi Gras events, and $1,050 for tickets to the New Orleans Saints games."
THOMAS: Public appearance related to generating interest for his reelection.
LAMB: Do people that give campaign contributions know that these people spend the money in the way you listed it here?
THOMAS: Some do, some don't, some don't care. I think the little man may not know, but I think some people do and some people don't care.
LAMB: "Some lobbyists on Gebhart's 163-person steering committee' were reportedly asked to fork over $2,500 each, a cover charge that represented a potential payday for the honoree of more than $400,000." Why did you list that?
THOMAS: Once again, I think this is interesting information. People who vote for politicians and maybe don't follow politics as much as viewers of C-SPAN do, don't know how important fund-raisers and social activities that are aimed at raising money for reelection campaigns are in this town. You could eat free, if you put your mind to it, in Washington going from one fund-raiser to another Monday through Thursday -- most of the time without having to leave Capitol Hill. People assume that lobbyists are out there chasing members of Congress, tracking them down, grabbing them kicking and screaming into their offices to talk to them about this piece of legislation or that. It's the other way around. It's the members of Congress who are chasing after lobbyists.
When Daniel Moynihan, after Bentsen left the Senate to become Treasury secretary, became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, his office sent around an invitation to lobbyists to come and meet him and donate some money to his campaign coffers. The invitation stressed how important he would be now in his new position as chairman of the Finance Committee and that 55 percent or 60 percent of all tax-and-spending measures would filter through his committee, so you'd better get to know him. When this invitation got into the media, the event was canceled, and Moynihan's face must have turned 10 shades of scarlet. This is part of the ugly business, the ugly behind-the-scenes business, of raising money that politicians don't like people to know about. When people find out about it, when the press finds out about it, lots of embarrassment can occur.
LAMB: You have a chapter called "Welcome to the Club," and it won't be long that there'll be new members. "The average pay was 70 percent per member, but in the case of the three House Democrats, the boost was bigger than that."
THOMAS: Salary increase.
LAMB: In 92.
THOMAS: What that congressional House salary meant in terms of a boost in personal income for these new members. Read that again. I think the average was 70 percent.
LAMB: "But in the case of three House Democrats, the boost was bigger than that," and you list Eva Clayton, who was making $8,000 before she came to Congress, Elizabeth Furse of Oregon, who was making $5,000 selling grapes, and in California, Dan Hamburg was making $2,262 on unemployment compensation. Let me go back and read that. Seventy percent of each new member back in 92, where there were 110 new members, . . .
THOMAS: Right. This is Congress now, not the Senate.
LAMB: Increased their salary by 70 percent?
LAMB: Has it always been that way?
THOMAS: I couldn't tell you. What made this group interesting was that, first of all, there were so many of them. Secondly, they came promising to reform the system and stop talking to influence peddlers and not take so much PAC money. The first six months this new group of reform congressmen and women was in office, they ended up collecting 50 percent more money from PACs than the preceding freshman class.
LAMB: Let me ask you about PACs, because you write a lot about PACs. How does it work?
THOMAS: It's pretty complex. Look, the rules are always changing. To tell you the truth, I don't know what's going on right now with PACs. But there is a limit on the amount of money that members of Congress can accept from PACs. It's $5,000, I believe, per . . .
LAMB: Are they bad?
THOMAS: Well, you know, there are PACs covering everything. There are sexual orientation PACs, there are snack food PACs, there are religious PACs, there are golfing PACs, there are grassroots PACs, there are big-industry PACs.
LAMB: But members would tell you, again if they were sitting here, that a PAC is the most democratic way of getting to have any power at all, by all putting bits and pieces of their money in a pot.
THOMAS: In a pot, and you participate in the sharing of this money. It looks bad to take lots of PAC money. I think congressmen realize this looks bad to people. Many see no alternative other than taking PAC money to pay the expenses for the incredible campaign bills that they incur when they run for reelection. PAC, the acronym, has become a bad word in politics. Another way to get together the money you need to run for reelection, of course, is have the government pay, and there was an effort to minimize the influence of PACs last year by increasing the amount of money congressmen and senators get from the federal government to run for reelection. It's an area that needs to be looked at, and it's an area that needs to be cleaned up. Of course, the only institution that can clean up Congress is Congress itself, and Congress has shown over the years a tremendous reluctance to get down and do the hard work of cleaning up what PACs do and the kind of money PACs can give and other organizations can give to members running for reelection.
LAMB: You say in the chapter on Caesar's Palace that money in Washington is a byproduct of relationships. Can you explain more about that?
THOMAS: A large part of politics in Washington, politicking in Washington, is playing a game. It's going to lunch. It's having fund-raisers. It's getting to know people. It's getting to know people that can introduce you to other people. It's going to the right cocktail parties where the right people are in attendance, and the right people always means people with connections to money. Washington is a town where you buy access either by being influential yourself or by paying for it. There are two things that get the attention of members of Congress, money and fear, and you're seeing, in a way, right now with this election both of those things in operation. Members of Congress probably have never been so afraid of losing their jobs as they are right now, and they've never needed more money to run more ads on television to influence more voters that they should keep their jobs. Washington is an immense buddy system. You become friends with people on the Hill once you've been in office for a while. You remain friends with those people after you leave office so you can deal with them and work with them and influence them as a lobbyist in your golden years when you're no longer serving but need to keep going back to the cloakroom, need to keep going to the House floor, need to keep meeting these people at fund-raisers and receptions.
LAMB: Anybody give you a strong negative reaction to your book?
THOMAS: Not so far.
LAMB: Ever talk to a member about your book?
THOMAS: Not yet, not yet.
LAMB: When you travel and you talk about the book, do you find that people out in the country know all these stories? If you live here, a lot of these stories in your book are stuff that we've . . .
THOMAS: Some have been heard about. Out in the country, people are amazed by what goes on in Washington and, in some cases, less informed about what happens here. I think people in Washington who live here and work here tend to accept a lot of this as business as usual. "Oh, so-and-so did that? Oh, so-and-so had to resign? So-and-so was forced to give this back?" The next day is another day here. People who don't live in Washington or people beyond the Beltway tend to take this, after it sinks in a little more seriously, and get very, very upset and angry. You get angry phone calls. I've been on some talk shows recently in other parts of the country, and the anger that callers and viewers express is just amazing. It stunned me that people are as upset and agitated about not only their members, who have always in the past -- people have hated Congress in general or at least polls suggested it, but have sort of liked their own members or appreciated the work their own members have done for them. But the anger -- this is not scientific, by any means -- the anger that you hear from people about Congress in general and their own senators and congressmen stunned me.
LAMB: Are you angry?
THOMAS: Not particularly, no. I suppose it's a little outrageous and the behavior is -- but I've lived here too long, I guess, in a way to be completely outraged by it. What amazes me -- and this will always amaze me, I think -- is the ability of members of Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate, once they've had a scandal break in their lives, their ability just to go out and face the public as if nothing has happened. The ability to act their way through scandals and through expos‚s of one sort or another fascinates me. There's almost a sort of penitential chic that is in operation on Capitol Hill. The worst the scandal, the greater the opportunity to appear human, and it's that appearing human and that ability to act your way through a scandal -- a money scandal, a behavioral scandal -- that to me is just absolutely amazing. Maybe the voting public is so accustomed to afternoon television and to Donohue and Sally Jessie and Maurie and Oprah that all of this now is just seen as part of this American dysfunctionalism that we have to accept and embrace. But members of Congress have really learned how to do this very well. I think that's what -- I don't know if you'd call it outrage -- but that's what really amazes me, this ability to have something awful happen in your career or personal life and then the next day pretend as if nothing has happened and go on with your business straightfaced.
LAMB: Again, we've never met you and I don't have any idea of what you're about to say to this, but I'd be interested in your perception of what impact televising the Congress has had on the public. Positive? Negative?
THOMAS: Oh, very positive. I think there should be more of it, obviously. I don't know what else you could show on C-SPAN, because you seem to show everything. I remember once, getting back to this freshman orientation thing, you had a camera on a bus that was taking incoming Republican members to a meeting in Annapolis for a Republican orientation program. I couldn't believe it. I thought, where else does C-SPAN go? The next place will be the men's room, I guess. But C-SPAN shows so much, it's hard to imagine what else you could show, but the more people see, the more educated they are as to what's going on. I think C-SPAN's played a big -- an unsolicited testimonial here -- it's played a big part in exposing the reality of politics and the reality of Capitol Hill rituals and the reality of what goes on here to more people than ever before, and the more people see, the more they don't like.
LAMB: But let me take the other turn on it. Really my question wasn't about the positive or negative of whether we're even there. But the members over there, some would say that showing this process up close is not a positive and you can't ever get a perfect situation, and the public, again, gets a distorted view because when the chamber's empty and they're doing special orders, they're off doing other things like going to committee meetings and they can't be everyplace at one time. What do the members think?
THOMAS: Well, I think a lot of them see it, again, as an opportunity to perform. You were talking about special orders. I remember Dornan's performance, his kind of one-man late show, during the 92 presidential campaign when he just sort of held court every night doing a number on Bill Clinton for weeks and weeks and weeks. A lot of members see this as an opportunity to perform, to generate sound bites. Look, the important thing they have to do is get on the air, and one way for members of Congress to do that is to create some drama, to create a crisis or an emergency situation, bring it up on the floor of the House or the Senate, hope that the networks pick it up. Carol Mosely-Braun did this with the renewal of the trademark for the Daughters of the Confederacy. She took that issue, ran with it, made an emergency crisis out of it, got on television. This is what television has done for the House and Senate, but it's given congressmen one more way to perform.
LAMB: But couldn't that be a negative?
THOMAS: Well, when people perform, they reveal a lot about themselves, and the more someone's on stage, the more you see about them. A lot of these people, of course, don't know when to leave the stage, which is a big part of show business. You have to know when to shut up, and those who don't know that tend to put their feet in their mouth, as Dornan did when he did his late show.
LAMB: You have a chapter -- I'm going to switch subjects entirely -- all about the Library of Congress and the librarian of Congress, James Billington. How come?
THOMAS: Billington has always interested me. I'm interested in Russia and Russian culture and Russian politics. Billington is a Russian scholar, and that's what started it. I did a profile of Billington for the L.A. Times magazine a couple of years ago and was at a party that he gave at the Library of Congress, ostensibly to open a Harriman collection. There were some letters and documents that Averill Harriman had donated to the Library of Congress, and this collection was being made available to scholars. So Billington saw this as an opportunity to have a cocktail party, and he invited people. I couldn't believe I was seeing some of these people -- George Cannon, Richard Helms, McNamara, Pamela Harriman. It was a couple of months after the coup had failed, and the Soviet Union was on the way out at this point. It was almost like a victory party.
LAMB: I've got to ask, who's George Cannon?
THOMAS: George Cannon is the father of the containment theory. George Cannon was a former -- still is -- a Sovietologist, a Russian scholar. Robert McNamara was a former secretary of Defense, and Richard Helms, former head of the CIA. It was almost like a victory over communism party. But you could see Billington working the crowd. There were some members of Congress there from the committee that oversees the funding for the library, and these are people that Billington has to curry favor with. But Billington was working the crowd in a way that I'd never really seen anybody do before in the Washington cocktail circuit. I used to be the editor of Dossier magazine, which no longer exists. The purpose of Dossier was to cover the Washington social scene, so I've seen a lot of cocktail circuitry. I'd never seen anyone so good at it as Billington this one particular night. From his rumpled tuxedo that said "I need money" to just his ingratiating manner, it was amazing to watch. Then I started to look more and more into what Billington had done, and Billington must have been the envy of every member of Congress.
Now, here Billington is not subject to the same kind of money-raising restrictions that members of Congress are, and Billington has created the Madison Council to raise money for the library. This is all for extracurricular library things like exhibits and events. Members of the Madison Council could pay anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 a year for the opportunity to hold parties themselves there at the library, which is one of the great venues in Washington. If atmospherics is everything in Washington and atmospherics are what help you create interest in giving you money so you can do great works, the Library of Congress is a great place for parties.
LAMB: Anything wrong with anything he's done so far?
THOMAS: No, not at all. Not at all.
LAMB: But you do say that he was trying to change a procedure so that people would pay a user fee for some of the things.
THOMAS: Billington wanted to -- I don't know if this is right or wrong; that requires maybe a philosopher to decide that -- but the Library of Congress needs money to do the things it does. The Library of Congress provides a lot of free services to companies that take this information and turn around and sell it.
LAMB: Do they have to pay for it?
THOMAS: They don't have to pay for it, no.
LAMB: Copyright free?
THOMAS: Well, it depends on what the information is, but the Library of Congress just generates lots and lots of information that databanks and resource and research services then turn around and sell to their customers, and Billington wants a piece of the action. I can't blame him.
LAMB: You say they have a $400 million-a-year budget from the government.
THOMAS: Approximately $400 million, yes.
LAMB: They have 532 miles of shelves, 100 million items and that they have the personal papers of about 23 presidents and a thousand members of Congress.
THOMAS: And, of course, Billington is very good at getting new material all the time, and, of course, new material is flooding into the Library of Congress. One of the big problems there is just cataloging all this stuff. It's called arreage, all of the information, all of the books, pamphlets, whatever that have not yet been cataloged and available for research. Billington, as a matter of fact, was in Moscow during the coup in August of 1991. There's a Library of Congress office, a congressional research office, in Moscow. I don't know if it's still in operation, but it was. Billington had set this up to help the Duma, the Russian congress, organize itself and create some research material for itself. During the coup, while Billington is watching all of this stuff and participating on the fringes of all of this, he had people from the Library of Congress out picking up leaflets and fliers and manifestos and pamphlets, really kind of a historian's dream come true, and he was out there with his forces street sweeping for material. An interesting guy.
LAMB: What happened to his proposal that people in business would have to pay?
THOMAS: Shot down, of course.
THOMAS: People in business who sell information are generally big campaign contributors. The big campaign contributors don't want to have competition from the Library of Congress. The big campaign contributors who give money to important members of committees that might oversee the activity of the Library of Congress said this is not a good thing, and Billington came before the committee that oversees the library, asked for permission to sell some of this information and got a resounding no.
LAMB: Because there's a new Congress soon to come in, let me go back to something you quoted from members who came in in 1992. Here's Maria Kantwell, a Democrat from Tom Foley's home state of Washington: "We'll be a force to be reckoned with. Watch out." What happened?
THOMAS: They weren't quite the force to be reckoned with that they promised to be. Once again, very shortly, it's very difficult to be a force to be reckoned with when you're operating outside the system in Congress. This was something she said, of course, before she got here, and once she got here and once other members got here, they saw how hard it would be to work outside the system. To change the system as outsiders is literally impossible. There are no outsiders. I mean, if you don't have a power base, if you don't play party politics, you're not going to be helped with your reelection campaign. If you don't get along, you don't go along, and if you don't go along, you don't get along, and if you don't do the things that are necessary to keep the system working properly, you're not going to find yourself able to do much of anything.
LAMB: Do you really mean the following statement? "The main concern of every Washington politician is job security."
THOMAS: Yes. Yes, I do. Yes, sure.
LAMB: You mean they're not here for their constituents?
THOMAS: There's a very thin line between public service and self-service. Constituents are a means to an end for most politicians. Most politicians have very, very little respect for the, quote, people who send them here. They like to talk to them, they like to speak to them, they like to shake their hands, they like lots of them around when they appear in public, but if you -- look at what Fred Grandy said the other day, the congressman from "Love Boat" who tried to become the governor of Iowa and it didn't work and he's now leaving the Hill. Like most people who leave Congress, he had a lot to say about how Congress doesn't work. What's funny now is how congressmen, especially ex-congressmen, former congressmen and senators, are starting to blame constituents. Constituents need to know more about how bills become law; constituents need to know more about what goes on here, become more sophisticated before they judge us. I don't think that congressmen care much about voters until it comes time to count votes at election time.
LAMB: What do you say to people watching that are angry and expect a vote this time around will create change in January? What are the chances?
THOMAS: Well, they'd better wake up and realize what does create change. If fear is one of the things that motivates members of Congress to act or to change themselves, to change their act, maybe a constant message from voters will work after a while. But as this last class of so-called reformers has shown, electing reformers doesn't always create the kind of reform on Capitol Hill that outsiders now become insiders promise to bring to the job when they come here. It just doesn't work the way it's supposed to or at least the way people running for office say it will.
LAMB: You say, "While not exactly giving the House and Senate a AAA rating for trust and integrity, Ornstein and Mann make it sound as though it is misguided outsiders who are doing all the harm." Norman Ornstein's been here on "Booknotes," but we've seen both gentlemen many, many times in the national media being quoted. What was your point there?
THOMAS: Ornstein works at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, and Thomas Mann, not the novelist, works at the Brookings Institute, and the two of them got together and wrote a pamphlet or a booklet on reforming Congress. There's an introduction to that, and they talk about Congress-bashing and that the country has become obsessed with bashing Congress and the way to reform Congress is not to bash it but to do the hard work necessary to change the institution. One of the points they overlook and don't really make -- and this is a problem, I think, with the Washington media. You can look at something so long from the inside you don't really see it anymore. The Congress-bashers are not that great mass of American voters out there; it's members of Congress themselves. This is how you get reelected. You bash Congress. Congress is full of the biggest Congress-bashers imaginable. This is one of the tried-and-true ways you run for reelection. I think what's so funny now about this current election is how desperately all of the people up for reelection, the 33 or 35 senators, however many it is, and the entire House, how they're trying to distance themselves from what they've been doing. The act of running for reelection now, for running for your old job or to get your old job back, is the act of pretending that you never had the job in the first place. So it's not the people who are bashing Congress. If they are, they're taking a cue from members of Congress, who do a pretty good job on their own.
LAMB: This is the book, called "Club Fed: Power, Money, Sex and Violence on Capitol Hill." Our author guest has been Bill Thomas. We thank you.
THOMAS: Thank you very much.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1994. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.