The Corridor of Influence

K Street in DC

On K Street, where high-powered lawyers and lobbyists bark into their smartphones and eat expensive lunches, a woman with a pink jacket sobs in the shadow of a glass building. A security guard watches.

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and Ward 2 Council member Brooke Pinto want to revamp K Street to efficiently move buses along the downtown corridor. But the project is in danger of being scuttled over a dispute about whether to fund fare-free bus service.

It’s the Corridor of Influence

When it comes to DC, K Street is the power corridor. It’s where high-powered lawyers, consultants and lobbyists bark into their smartphones over expensive lunches. Come nightfall, they’re back with hair considerably slicked or flattened to schmooze in the cocktail bars.

The street’s reputation for influence is not without blemishes, though. Lobbyists are often viewed as greedy, and Americans of all political stripes distrust the way lobbyists can shape legislation to benefit their industry over the interests of ordinary citizens. The revolving door between Capitol Hill and the leading lobbying firms can also be problematic, with former federal employees frequently getting jobs at lobbying shops.

Some lobbyists are starting to realize that they can get more bang for their buck by leaving Washington and going to the states. The gun trade association National Shooting Sports Foundation, for example, has registered lobbyists in 35 states. But it still rents space on K Street.

It’s a Place of Power

The street is home to the country’s biggest lobby shops and the headquarters of many advocacy groups, law firms and some think tanks. It’s known as the center of lobbying, and some have criticized it for perpetuating a system where money and connections can disproportionately affect policy outcomes.

K Street has been the scene of demonstrations against lobbyist influence. Earlier this week, hundreds of activists swarmed the streets, shutting traffic for blocks around the district’s biggest lobby shops.

They wanted to highlight the “secretive process” by which bills are introduced and pushed through Congress. The official legislative steps include: a representative or senator introduces a bill, it is assigned a number and sent to the appropriate committee, and then after debate and a vote, the bill goes back to the full House or Senate. Then it gets sent to the president to be signed into law. The whole process takes weeks. A single bill can easily cost millions of dollars in legal fees and staff salaries.

It’s a Place to Party

On K Street, a woman in a pink jacket slumps over a puddle of vomit next to an imposing glass building. A perplexed security guard stares at her. A sob catches in her throat.

In the ’90s, the city tried to make K Street likable with redone sidewalks, granite curbs and brick crosswalks. But desirable addresses began shifting to the northwestern “suburban” neighborhoods of Kalorama and Dupont Circle.

Then the inexorable process of change began eroding away the soul of K Street.

Gone are the throngs of prostitutes that once patrolled its streets. Now, K Street is home to some of DC’s best clubs and bars. Slip behind a wall of books at the Eaton Workshop and you’ll find Allegory, a sleek, shadowy cocktail bar that pays homage to civil rights activist Ruby Bridges with literary-themed drinks. Or head to Cities, where a sunken main room has more VIP booths than standing space and the crowd skews toward athletes and celebrities.

It’s a Place to Shop

K Street has been a long-time home to many of DC’s major think tanks, lobbyists and advocacy groups. But it also has some of the city’s best clubs for young adults and professionals.

In the era of the Obamas, it seemed like everything was up for grabs in Washington, and for a time, K Street was at the center of it all. But in recent years, the corridor has been slowed down by a revolving door of federal office holders and the squabbles of an entrenched capitalist class.

In the future, there is hope that it might get faster. A rumored streetcar line would run along K Street from Georgetown to Foggy Bottom and Downtown, making the corridor a more accessible destination for people on the go. The line’s projected ridership could make it one of the highest-ridership routes in the entire country. But for now, the street stands as a muddle of grand vision obscured by quotidian economics.

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