The Gilded Capital: Power/money Connect

There is no more familiar Washington type than the idealist who arrives to do good and stays to do well.

Here's what has changed in the modern capital: These people are doing really, really well.

The old channels of private money that always coursed through a city dedicated to public power have in recent years overflowed their banks. In the process, an expectation of self-enrichment is fast becoming an everyday part of Washington life.

There are the staff hands and press aides who became multimillionaires a few years after leaving the White House for public relations and lobbying shops. There are the Capitol Hill assistants who know they can command ample six-figure salaries at trade associations and private firms in their late 20s or early 30s.

These sums are changing typical Washington career arcs. And they are transforming the professional culture of a capital city that historically has been defined by comfortable salaries but not by genuine wealth and its gilded accoutrements. Lobbyists and consultants who even a decade ago typically had distinctly upper-middle-class lifestyles now dine at trendy restaurants run by celebrity chefs (like BLT Steak, where the Japanese Kobe beef costs $26 an ounce), assemble modern art collections (Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta has one of Washington's best), wear suits tailored in London or Milan and, like Hillary Clinton pollster Mark Penn, own first homes in Georgetown and second ones by the Chesapeake.

Public disclosure records make plain where all that money is coming from.

In 1996, the entire political world, from candidates to PACs to interest groups, raised a total of $2.8 billion to spend on the presidential and congressional elections. In 2004, that same political world raised $4.3 billion to spend on them. This election cycle, the sum is expected by most experts to soar well past $5 billion, and for the first time, the two nominees in the general election are on track to raise and spend $1 billion all by themselves.

Power/money connect
Lobbying to riches
D.C.'s hidden luxuries
Top-dollar tabs
The Kobe Caper: Is Luxury Steak a Scam?
The Gilded Ages: Then and Now

In 1999, businesses and other advocacy groups spent $1.5 billion wining, dining and lobbying lawmakers to take their side in legislative disputes or slip an earmark into a budget bill. Last year, they spent $2.6 billion doing the same thing.

In 2000, there were 16,300 registered lobbyists in Washington. Today, there are more than 35,000, and the number of new corporations, foreign governments and other causes looking for influence grows each month.

In addition to all this money flowing in, a historic shift has taken place among the Washington professionals who spend it. A generation ago, lobbyists, fundraisers and campaign consultants were typically individual practitioners. Often, political work was a sideline to a more conventional legal career.

But now these jobs are professions. And most people in them assume that the profit motive for trying to influence public affairs needs neither explanation nor apology.

For instance, the once starving campaign manager who slept in offices and lived off pizza is a thing of the past. Top advisers this cycle see a buyers' market and are demanding big salaries. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's campaign manager, Terry Nelson, was paid $36,300 in the first three months of this year; President Bush's former campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, was paid $24,400 in the last three months of 2003, when the campaign was in full swing.

None of the proposed reforms in the wake of the Jack Abramoff study is likely to alter Washington's money culture. If anything, lobbyist largesse is breeding lawmaker envy. A 2005 study by Public Citizen, a nonpartisan watchdog group, found that since 1998, 43 percent of the former farmers and local bankers and Eagle Scouts who came to Wahington to serve their country don't go home once they leave office.

The pattern is so prevalent that Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) said this of a proposed two-year ban on lobbying by former members: "What you are telling me is I cut off my profession."

As ever when big money is at stake, temptation and corruption hover nearby. Two congressmen and multiple senior aides won't be able to vote in future elections because of fresh felony records. At least a half-dozen more are under investigation, and so are a few wives. Recently indicted Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) had $90,000 stuffed in his freezer.

The money chase, meanwhile, will figure more prominently in the 2008 election cycle than any other in history. A public financing system for presidential campaigns, passed after the 1974 Watergate scandal and intended to put limits on campaign spending, has collapsed. Candidates, unafraid of a public backlash, are opting out and raising as much money as they can, and all of it has to be spent by Election Day.

In the first three months of this year, the presidential candidates combined raised $130 million -- almost $100 million more than former Vice President Al Gore collected for his entire 2000 campaign.

"Fundraising has become a full-time occupation of many national elected officials and political leaders," said Anthony Corrado, a political money expert.

More sophisticated targeting of congressional races and the thin partisan margins of control have led House and Senate candidates to professionalize their own campaigns, hiring more consultants and maintaining year-round fundraising operations. Millionaire candidates who can self-finance are so feared that Congress carved out a special exception in campaign finance laws so incumbents can raise money above donation limits in order to stay competitive with them.

Passions over the Iraq war and the rise of the Internet as a fundraising tool have ushered in thousands of new donors. In 1991, campaign fundraising experts marveled at President George H.W. Bush's donor base of 50,000. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) entered the primary with an existing donor list that exceeded 250,000 people.

Last November's shift in partisan power on Capitol Hill prompted a new wave of lobbyist giving as businesses and other groups tried to curry favor with new leaders or salvage the faltering campaign of a one-time ally. In 2006, industry PACs donated $311 million to candidates, which was a 17 percent jump -- $45 million -- over donations given in 2004, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks political giving.

In some ways, the mushrooming of the industries surrounding politics and government has made Washington's wealth more similar to that of other commercial centers, like New York, said Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

"Here's the difference: In New York, money was always a central element. In Washington, power was the central element," said Ornstein, who moved to Washington in 1969 on an academic fellowship and has written several books on Congress and politics. "Now in Washington, power and money have intertwined in a way that they just weren't 30 or 40 years ago."

Kenneth P. Vogel contributed to this story.