Washington's Shadow Economy of Speaking Fees

Few politicians, their aides, think-tankers, and journalists can resist the lucrative side-job

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Washington is addicted to speaking fees. From politicians, to aides to think-tankers to journalists—it's a lucrative side-job that few can resist. (Just ask The New York Times standards editor Phil Corbett, who had to remind the staff in a memo this morning about its conflict of interest policies regarding speaking fees.) On Monday, Washington Post reporter Jason Horowitz looked into workings of the paid speaking circuit by zeroing in on just one of many of the city's speaking bureaus: The Washington Speakers Bureau. Before politicians even leave office, the firm seeks to represent them for public appearances. Prominent talent commands $50,000 a speech, with presidents raking in $200,000 to $300,000 a hit. The bureau's list of talent includes George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, David Axelrod, Paul Begala, Mike Allen, Tom Brokaw and many more. And it's not alone. "In the past 30 years, a proliferation of bureaus has promoted, booked and enriched former lawmakers, candidates, consultants, Cabinet members, political reporters and gadflies," writes Horowitz. So just how pervasive is the paid speaker economy and what are its ramifications? Here's what we know:

Everybody is in on it Last year, Politico's Ben Smith exchanged e-mails with a speaker circuit insider who spoke to the industry's growth:

Everyone is doing it — Bristol Palin for God sakes? I mean seriously. It's almost a joke that I can find you a speakers fee within 2 weeks for everyone who either resigns or leaves government.

And it's never discussed with any real scrutiny by the mainstream media or Fox because it's bi-partisan. Everyone does it! James Carville. Bill Maher. Hannity. Oliver North. Eugene Robinson. Al Sharpton. Jack Welch. Trent Lott.

It's about the money Prolific speech-giver and political consultant James Carville tells Horowitz the blunt truth,  “Let’s say you are secretary of something — there are two ways you are going to make a really good living: a lobbyist or a speaker, or a combination of the two."

It's also about easy living Yes, money is probably the main reason Beltway elites haul themselves in front of stale crowds like the National Grocers Association but it's not the only reason. "Cleaner than lobbying, easier than the practice of law, cleaner than hitting up pension funds ... safer than graft," Politico's Ben Smith theorized last year.

It's risky for journalists Case in point: New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner. He's trusted as an objective interpreter of Middle East affairs, yet he is a member of an Israeli speakers bureau associated with far-right Israeli figures. To put it plainly, it doesn't make him look good. Last year, The Washington Post's then-ombudsman Andrew Alexander also wrote on the subject, noting how it can compromise perceptions of coverage. "The Post should require explicit approval before [contract reporters] give paid speeches."

It's great for cable TV One way of entering the speaker circuit is to appear on cable television, which for many is not a pleasant experience. But they do it to get attention, as Ben Smith notes. "It provides an incentive for consultants and out-of-work politicians to volunteer themselves to cable television and to make themselves interested and controversial enough to stay on it. (It's a kind of subsidy to cable.) Cable hits are a kind of loss leader on the speaking circuit -- they don't themselves play, but they make a paid speaker more saleable."

Even academics do it  For an interesting take, Daniel Drezner at Foreign Policy explains the four tiers of the speaker system for foreign policy types. It's not just Fareed Zakaria making bank!

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.