Why Washington's Money Culture Thrives on Gridlock

One of the summer's hottest reads, "This Town," is New York Times Magazine writer Mark Leibovich's inside view of some of Washington's best-known politicians and richest lobbyists as they scheme and schmooze in what he describes as Washington's nonstop money game.

Based on his years covering Washington politics at the New York Times and the Washington Post, Leibovich's best-selling book attempts to answer one enduring riddle: Why does so much money flow into a U.S. political system that's so dysfunctional that its recent budget disputes have led to a downgrade of U.S. debt and several near-shutdowns of government? In an interview with U.S. News, Leibovich explains why lobbyists make more money when nothing gets done.

There's always been money in Washington. The Senate was known as the "millionaires' club" way back in the Gilded Age. What's changed?

There have always been very wealthy people in government. There is money everywhere. Now it's where you go to make money. Vastly more elected officials stay in Washington when they leave office than in the past. Everyone is lobbying.

Isn't it easier just to go to Wall Street and make a fortune?

Wall Street was always a money culture where greed was good, to borrow Michael Douglas's line [from "Wall Street"]. Las Vegas, Hollywood, those were always money places. Washington has always had a decent economy, but it was never a gold-rush place where people stayed to cash in. That's what happens now. After people leave office, they stay here to make money as lobbyists.

[Read: 10 Risky Investments Billionaires Can't Resist.]

Is it ironic to you that Washington's done better than most cities since the start of the recession?

The economic boom here in recent years has been a real contrast to the rest of the country. There has been such a flood of money here, the city that was built on public services has been transformed into one built on self-service.

After agreeing on stimulus money and bailouts, Washington was back to the same old deadlocks: Taxes, spending, and Obamacare gets dozens of re-votes even after it's approved. Are those lobbyists wasting their investment?

There is a big economic incentive for things not to get done. If a tax reform bill were passed tomorrow, there would be tens of billions of dollars in potential lobbying fees and consulting fees never paid out. There would be shouting matches. Washington's money culture is based on disagreement. The lobbyists make more money if things don't get resolved quickly.

Why should that help the money interests who pay the lobbyists?

The truth is that whenever something substantive happens, and there is a complicated new bill or any kind of reform, corporations and investors get nervous. Gridlock is shorthand for the status quo, which brings a measure of security to investors and corporations and the money culture.

Two years ago this time, the markets went into extreme turmoil when the budget showdown threatened a government shutdown in the debt ceiling battle and a cut in U.S. bond ratings. Did that finally put a scare into Washington?

There have been a lot of showdowns the last couple of decades. The city survives. The country survives. The people in this country are not happy. But the end-game strategies have not done anything to reduce the incredible wealth of this town. The status quo has held over the past few years despite it.

Washington had to bail out Wall Street in 2008. Is that when the money culture shifted to Washington from Wall Street?

It added a great deal of media attention to Washington, and there is always a lot of that anyway. But the symbiosis between Wall Street and Washington has always been important. So that is not really new.

[Read: Lessons From a Market Panic: Beware of 'Safe' Yields.]

Do you get jaded about the money culture when you live and work in Washington for awhile?

You see it all the time, and it's hard to ignore. The easy wealth, easy fame and easy celebrity that Washington provides for people. People outside Washington would be surprised at how appalling it is in its magnitude. It's definitely changed for the worse in recent years. I love the city, and I think it's a great place to live. But you see a lot of disgusting things.

Are people who pay so much to lobbyists getting their money's worth?

For sure, they are paying exorbitant fees. But if lobbying can change a tax bill that saves them billions of dollars, it's money well-spent. And they keep paying more, so it must be working. It's not serving the interests of most average Americans, though.

[See: 10 Golden Parachutes to Make Your Head Spin.]

Do you see either party being more corrupted?

It's a bipartisan thing. I guess my book focused more on Democrats because they tend to be more sanctimonious, so it made me want to do more on them. Republicans are less shy and ashamed about lobbying.

Often, the lobbyists are the ones doing the work of writing the bills. Do you think Washington could survive without them?

I think it could. I hope it could.