Abramoff Scandal Brings New Scrutiny to Lobbying
Jeff Birnbaum and Dan Balz have a front page piece in today’s WaPo arguing that the Abramoff case is bringing new scrutiny to the way business is done on Capitol Hill.
The biggest corruption scandal to infect Congress in a generation took down one of the best-connected lobbyists in Washington yesterday. The questions echoing around the capital were what other careers — and what other familiar ways of doing business — are endangered.
Jack Abramoff represented the most flamboyant and extreme example of a brand of influence trading that flourished after the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives 11 years ago. Now, some GOP strategists fear that the fallout from his case could affect the party’s efforts to keep control in the November midterm elections.
Abramoff was among the lobbyists most closely associated with the K Street Project, which was initiated by his friend Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), now the former House majority leader, once the GOP vaulted to power. It was an aggressive program designed to force corporations and trade associations to hire more GOP-connected lobbyists in what at times became an almost seamless relationship between Capitol Hill lawmakers and some firms that sought to influence them.
Now Abramoff has become a symbol of a system out of control. His agreement to plead guilty to three criminal counts and cooperate with prosecutors threatens to ensnare other lawmakers or their aides — Republicans and possibly some Democrats. At a minimum, yesterday’s developments put both sides of the lawmaker-lobbyist relationship on notice that some of the wilder customs of recent years — lubricated with money, entertainment and access — carry higher risks. In the post-Abramoff era, what once was accepted as business as usual may be seen as questionable or worse.
“In the short run, members of Congress will get allergic to lobbyists,” said former representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.), now a lobbyist for Clark & Weinstock. “They’ll be nervous about taking calls and holding meetings, to say nothing of lavish trips to Scotland. Those will be out. For a period of time now, members of Congress will be concerned about even legitimate contact with the lobbying world.”
The initial impact of a scandal that earlier produced a guilty plea from Abramoff associate Michael Scanlon could be changes in the way lawmakers and lobbyists interact. In the longer term, said many lobbyists and others, Congress will be pressured to revisit and toughen rules on gifts and travel that lawmakers and members of their staffs may accept. Some former lawmakers said even bigger changes may be needed to restore public confidence in how Washington works.
The NYT has a similiar piece by Sheryl Stohlberg entitled, “Tremors Across Washington as Lobbyist Will Aid Inquiry.”
Mr. Abramoff, 46, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion, and prosecutors said he used campaign contributions, lavish trips, meals and other perks to influence lawmakers and their aides. Court papers filed on Tuesday singled out just one member of Congress, “Representative No. 1,” identified elsewhere as Representative Bob Ney, Republican of Ohio. But that was cold comfort on Capitol Hill, where there was a sense of lawmakers and lobbyists’ waiting for the other shoe to drop. In a city whose history is rife with scandal and the political price it exacts, from the F.B.I. sting operation known as Abscam to the savings and loans collapse involving “the Keating Five,” some experts feared that the Abramoff investigation would eclipse all the rest.
While Mr. Abramoff is most closely linked to Republicans, even Democrats, many of whom also benefited from his largesse, acted skittish. “We’re talking about people who have longstanding careers in Congress who took contributions from somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew Jack Abramoff,” said a Democratic Congressional aide who insisted on anonymity so as not to drag his boss into the scandal. “Now they’re panicked. The hope is that this investigation will root out the wrongdoing without innocent people getting hit with the ricochet.”
Ace is bemused by the second passage,
Notice how that’s phrased. “Even Democrats, many of whom also benefited from his largesse, acted skittish.” Well, if they benefited from his “largesse,” why the hell wouldn’t they be skittish? What’s that “even” doing there? Are they not in the exact same position as Republicans who took money from Abramoff and his cronies?
Angry Bear disagrees, noting that this is almost entirely a Republican scandal. While that’s true in a numerical sense–Republicans have majorities in both Houses and therefore are the obvious targets for influence peddlers– it’s not true in a systemic sense.
That said, the Republicans took over after the 1994 elections promising to clean up a system that had become corrupted after decades of one-party rule. They succeeded in the short term but, rather clearly, things are as bad if not worse now than they were when Newt and the boys took over. As Michelle Malkin observes, “Abramoff spread his stench across both parties. But principled conservatives must call Abramoff what he is–a sleazebag plain and simple, as I’ve noted before–and condemn his criminal activities unequivocally.”
Slate‘s chief political correspondent, John Dickerson, provides a list of the Congressmen and other players who are more worried than others.