How Lobbying Became Big Business

REVIEW: ‘The Wolves of K Street: The Secret History of How Big Money Took Over Big Government’ by Brody Mullins and Luke Mullins

Podesta Group co-founder Tony Podesta (AP)
May 12, 2024

One of the most amazing developments in modern American politics is how Donald Trump’s Republican Party seems to have supplanted FDR’s Democratic Party as the political home of the "working man." But how did this role reversal happen? There are no doubt myriad contributing factors, but anyone who wants to understand this transformation should read Brody and Luke Mullins’s new book, The Wolves of K Street.

The book is an exhaustive account of how the incestuous business of K Street lobbying evolved from labor unions, environmentalists, and consumer pressure groups using "the federal government as an instrument to protect consumers from the excesses of capitalism," to the modern era, where Big Business rules. This phenomenon was bipartisan, as evidenced by Democratic president Bill Clinton’s neoliberal policies, such as the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and deregulation of the telecom and finance industries.

To tell the story, the authors focus on three dynasties that arose in the late 20th century: Tommy Boggs of Patton Boggs; Black, Manafort, and Stone; and Tony Podesta.

Boggs was an influence peddler whose lineage serves as a microcosm of this larger narrative; his father was Democratic Rep. Hale Boggs, the House majority leader from Louisiana who had "worked to burrow the values of New Deal liberalism deep into the Washington firmament." After Hale Boggs’s plane disappeared in Alaska in 1972, his scion, Tommy, pursued "the opposite agenda, using his clout as a corporate lobbyist to roll back regulations, increase the political influence of business executives, and discredit the very notion that the government had a legitimate role to play in the private economy."

For example, after helping elect Bill Clinton in 1992, Tommy (whose sister was journalist Cokie Roberts) worked to kill Clinton’s signature issue, universal health coverage, a couple of years later. To do this, he teamed up with a Republican company, Black, Manafort, and Stone—a Republican firm started by Charlie Black, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone (names that have become more familiar in recent years).

Two decades later, Manafort would team up with Tony Podesta, the brash head of the third lobbying dynasty highlighted in this book, the Podesta Group, to work on a controversial project (lobbying the United States on behalf of an ostensibly nonprofit group that was actually under the control of then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych) that would greatly harm both powerbrokers.

Podesta was no stranger to controversy. As a young Democrat, Podesta was tapped by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) to head up the campaign to torpedo Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination in 1987. It worked. (Coincidentally, Bork was attempting to replace Justice Lewis Powell, whose 1971 memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, titled, "Attack on American Free Enterprise System," persuaded corporate interests that they must fight back politically, thereby setting in motion the theme of this book.)

As you can probably tell, The Wolves of K Street is lengthy and chock-full of details about the overlapping careers of prominent lobbyists, including, but certainly not limited to, the three main dynasties. But the book is probably at its best when it tells the more modern stories of figures that one of the coauthors, Brody Mullins (an investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal), covered in real time.

The best of these stories involves Evan Morris, a Tommy Boggs protégé (turned Big Pharma lobbyist), who lived a lavish lifestyle that appeared to exceed even his very generous salary and commensurate perks. If there is a character who most resembles Jordan Belfort, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, it would probably be Morris. But instead of going to jail and writing a memoir that became a hit movie, Morris committed suicide by shooting himself in the head at an elite Virginia golf course.

In fact, most of the main characters met with sad endings.

By the end of his life, Boggs’s company was plagued by financial difficulties. Before he died, he was forced to merge his firm; thus Patton Boggs became Squire Patton Boggs.

Podesta went through a high-profile, messy divorce. Then, on the heels of the investigation into his Ukrainian activities, Podesta (whose brother John is a major player in Democratic politics) lost his lobbying and PR firm in 2017.

And while the final chapter is yet to be written for Black, Manafort, and Stone, the latter two were granted pardons by then-president Trump in 2020, for various offenses (Manafort’s pardon came after he had already served some time in a minimum-security lockup and been moved to home confinement). Recent reporting suggests Manafort is in discussions with the Trump team to help their 2024 efforts, a development that would add yet another twist to this story.

But while readers will enjoy the voyeurism involved in learning about the rise and fall (and sometimes resurrection) of these eccentric figures, the central theme involves the macro transition the lobbying industry made toward Big Business. By the dawn of the 21st century, this shift was fully ensconced as a bipartisan consensus, thus opening the door for Trump to come along and upset the pro-business wing of the GOP, so he could co-opt the "working-class" ethos from Democrats.

The Mullins brothers, understandably, emphasize the power of influence peddlers in bringing about this incredible shift; but the truth is that lobbyists only deserve partial blame (or credit) for this trend. Lobbyists and pressure groups can and do drive public policy decisions for profit, but, just as often, they chase trends brought about by technological innovations, organic public outcry or cultural shifts, and the ideological whims of politicians. That’s not to detract from this important work, but to instead put things in proper perspective.

The Wolves of K Street could have been condensed into a shorter, more focused read. Instead, the weighty tome comes in at over 500 pages. Nevertheless, it is a well-researched look at an industry whose practitioners (despite their sometimes ostentatious lives and conspicuous consumption) would just as soon fly under the radar.

The Wolves of K Street: The Secret History of How Big Money Took Over Big Government
by Brody Mullins and Luke Mullins
Simon & Schuster, 624 pp., $34.99

Matt Lewis is a senior columnist for the Daily Beast and the author of Filthy Rich Politicians: The Swamp Creatures, Latte Liberals, and Ruling-Class Elites Cashing in on America (Center Street).