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.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Eli Rabett says:

    Jack Abramoff was Tom Delay’s bag man who collected from those who were willing to pay to play. In Delay world, AKA the House of Representatives, if you didn’t pay, you didn’t play.

    In spite of everyone trying to spin this to be a bipartisan scandal, the fact is that Abramoff was a creature of the Republican party, having been president of the College Republican National Committee, was a key player in the K Street project of the REPUBLICAN party, and gave no money to Democrats or Democratic organizations.

    That some of his clients gave some (much less than to Republicans) money to Democrats is a whole lot less interesting than the emerging evidence of systematic corruption among Republicans in the House (Delay, Ney, etc), Senate (Coryn, Burns, Frist – by his own manipulations of stocks, etc.) and Administration (Safavian, Giles, etc…). There is a long list of Republicans who conspired with and accepted huge piles of money from Abramoff, his charities and his clients. There is no rational calculus that makes this other than it is, a scandal of Republican hubris. Throw the bums into jail.

  2. McGehee says:

    Y’know, I could’ve sworn McCain-Feingold was supposed to put an end to all this.

  3. kjadsfh says:

    I love how the mainstream media spins this alleged “scandal”!

    Missing in most discussions is the fact that these corrupt and dishonest Indian tribes are behind all of the bribery. Ever since they came to this country, the Indians have reneged on their committments and engaged in massive trickery.

    Hopefully, Bush will echo his predecessor, Andrew Jackson’s 1830 state of the union address and deal with the indian problem, once and for all.

    The other thing that is missing from MSM discussion is the fact that the lead Justice Department Prosecutor, Mary Butler, is a lifelong big government bureaucrat partisan hack.

    She was hired by Janet Reno after working as a law clerk for communist judge Thurgood Marshall right out of law school. In between she worked as legal counsel for the Governor Ann Richards campaign when George W. defeated Richards back in the 1990s. She also worked with Ronnie Earle for a while.

    This entire Abramhoff investigation was motivated by Butler’s desire to get back at Bush and the Republicans. Hopefully Gonzalez will give her the ax before this thing gets out of hand.

  4. McGehee says:

    Ever since they came to this country, the Indians have reneged on their committments and engaged in massive trickery.

    Nice attempt at parody — or are you truly unhinged?

  5. kjadsfh says:

    Nice attempt at parody—or are you truly unhinged?

    Listen, we’ve been dealing with this “First Nations” BS for years. Remember the words of the only Democrat who has ever been on the right side in national security issues, Andrew Jackson:

    Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. He is unwilling to submit to the laws of the States and mingle with their population. To save him from this alternative, or perhaps utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement. . . .

  6. OKeeffe says: