Michael Kinsley declares politicians’ view of lobbying is the equivalent of a protection racket.
For many years before the lawsuit, Microsoft had virtually no Washington “presence.” It had a large office in the suburbs, mainly concerned with selling software to the government. Bill Gates resisted the notion that a software company needed to hire a lot of lobbyists and lawyers. He didn’t want anything special from the government, except the freedom to build and sell software. If the government would leave him alone, he would leave the government alone.
At first, this was regarded (at least in Washington, D.C.) as naive. Grown-up companies hire lobbyists. What’s this guy’s problem? Then it was regarded as foolish. This was not a game. There were big issues at stake. Next it came to be seen as arrogant: Who the hell does Microsoft think it is? Does it think it’s too good to do what every other company of its size in the world is doing?
Ultimately, there even was a feeling that, in refusing to play the Washington game, Microsoft was being downright unpatriotic. Look, buddy, there is an American way of doing things, and that American way includes hiring lobbyists, paying lawyers vast sums by the hour, throwing lavish parties for politicians, aides, journalists and so on. So get with the program.
Warren Buffett famously said that the thing is to learn from other people’s mistakes, not your own. Google learned from Microsoft. It did not dis Washington. It has had a Washington lobbying operation almost from the very beginning of the company, way back in 2003. In 2008, Google opened a glamorous new D.C. office, described by Google’s senior manager of global communications and public affairs as “a showcase of the company and what it means.” The very fact that Google has a senior manager of global communications and public affairs suggests that Google might not be quite the noncorporate corporation it sees itself as.
And if Google can hold on just a bit longer, the pointing finger inevitably will move again, this time to Facebook. But Facebook will be prepared. Even before its stock goes public, it is making noises about hiring President Barack Obama’s former press secretary, Robert Gibbs, and has already hired Marne Levine, former chief of staff of the National Economic Council. And not because of their code-writing skills.
As the Microsoft example suggests, the Washington culture of influence peddling is not entirely, or even primarily, the fault of the corporations that hire the lobbyists and pay the bills. It’s a vast protection racket, practiced by politicians and political operatives of both parties. Nice little software company you’ve got here. Too bad if we have to regulate it or if Big Government programs force us to raise its taxes. Your archrival just wrote a big check to the Washington Bureaucrats Benevolent Society. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to do the same?