Abramoff Scandal Backfiring of Republican Strategy?

Janet Hook and Mary Curtius have a devastating “Analysis” piece in today’s Los Angeles Times arguing that the Abramoff scandal was part and parcel of the GOP’s political strategy.

The corruption investigation surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff shows the significant political risk that Republican leaders took when they adopted what had once seemed a brilliant strategy for dominating Washington: turning the K Street lobbying corridor into a cog of the GOP political machine. Abramoff thrived in the political climate fostered by GOP leaders, including Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who have methodically tried to tighten the links between the party in Congress and business lobbyists, through what has become known as the “K Street Project.” GOP leaders, seeking to harness the financial and political support of K Street, urged lobbyists to support their conservative agenda, give heavily to Republican politicians and hire Republicans for top trade association jobs. Abramoff obliged on every front, and his tentacles of influence reached deep into the upper echelons of Congress and the Bush administration.

[…]

One Senate Republican aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Republicans soon will unveil ethics reform legislation in an effort to blunt criticism from Democrats that they have fostered a “culture of corruption” in Washington. The controversy may also increase the prospect that Republicans will shake up their leadership after Congress reconvenes at the end of January. House Republican moderates are calling for new leadership elections to permanently replace DeLay, who stepped down temporarily as majority leader after he was indicted in an unrelated case. “Let’s get a permanent leadership and begin moving forward and overcome the problems that are on the table right now,” said Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a caucus of GOP moderates in Congress.

Conservatives are worried about possible political fallout for all Republicans, not just those who might be implicated, once Abramoff starts cooperating with prosecutors. “This is the one thing that could result in a change in who controls the Congress,” said Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist.

[…]

“The connections between Congress, congressional staff and lobbyists have been a problem for many years,” said Dennis Thompson, author of the book Ethics in Congress. “In the last few years it’s gotten out of control,” Thompson said. “But Abramoff has taken it to a new level.”

[…]

Critics of the campaign finance system say it would be a kind of rough justice if Republicans were hobbled by their relationships with a lobbyist, because they worked so hard to increase coordination between their party and K Street. Republicans said their efforts were no different than what Democrats did for years to raise money and organize support from their constituencies, including labor unions and civil rights advocates. But Democratic critics said the GOP went much further in linking political money to policy outcomes, and that Abramoff was a master at maneuvering in a system that required lobbyists to “pay to play” on Capitol Hill.

[…]

The last time Washington lobbying came under such broad legal scrutiny was in the Abscam scandal of 1980, when an FBI sting operation led to the conviction of seven members of Congress on corruption charges. That episode was widely viewed as a scandal involving isolated individuals, the proverbial “bad apples.” But some critics of the current campaign finance system say that the Abramoff scandal could have broader significance if it is seen as an indictment of a corrupt political system, not just individuals.

Fair or not, it’s likely too late to change that perception. CNN released a poll yesterday–taken before news of the Abrahoff plea hit–showing most Americans thinking Congress corrupt.

About half of U.S. adults believe most members of Congress are corrupt, a poll released Tuesday suggests. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 49 percent of respondents said most members of Congress are corrupt. Although 46 percent of respondents said most aren’t, the margin of sampling error — plus or minus 4.5 percent — makes it clear that the perception of congressional politicians is largely negative. Congress’ image could emerge as an election topic, with 55 percent of respondents saying corruption will be “the most important” or a “very important” issue to consider when voting in November, when all 435 House seats, and 33 Senate seats, will be decided.

[…]

Asked how many congressional Republicans are corrupt, 19 percent of respondents said “almost all” and 28 percent said “many.” The response was similar when people were asked about corruption among Democrats: 17 percent said “almost all” and 27 percent said “many.”

The poll was conducted among 1,003 adults December 16-18, before former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax-evasion charges Tuesday as part of a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

While the Republicans may–probably should–be hurt by this more than Democrats, my guess is that most people will just think this is “business as usual.” To a large extent, that’s the case. Still, there’s a point where difference in degree is a difference in kind and we may have reached it.

In an otherwise rather rancerous post, Nixon’s Babies in which I discussed just how important Abramoff is to the “movement.” And I highly recommend reading Nina Easton’s Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Ascendacy Anybody who looks at Jack Abramoff and sees anything but a hard core GOP influence peddler who was paid very well to finance the GOP machine is either a shill or a fool.

There’s not much doubt about that. Of course, aggressive lobbying and influence peddling is hardly a GOP invention.

Taegan Goddard rounds up some press commentary on the likely fallout. The one that stood out to me was this one that I missed when I read Sheryl Stolberg’s piece in the NYT: “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.”

We’ll see if that proves true. Oftentimes, scandals start out seeming much bigger than they are. But is does look pretty bad at the moment.

Not so long ago, the Republicans were complaining about President Clinton and company renting out the Lincoln bedroom and selling tickets to White House coffees and such. A decade ago, they swept to control of Congress partly by railing against the very real corruption of the Democratic machine in Congress. It appears that some, at least, have kicked it up a notch.

Update: John Hinderacker disagrees.

Only one Congressman is mentioned in the information, Bob Ney of Ohio. Paragraph 22 of the information alleges that Abramoff provided “a lavish trip to Scotland to play golf on world-famous courses, tickets to sporting events and other entertainment, regular meals at Abramoff’s upscale restaurant, and campaign contributions” to Ney and his staff in exchange for Ney’s “agreement to perform a series of official acts,” most notably, “advancing the application of a client of Abramoff for a license to install wireless telephone infrastructure in the House of Representatives.”

[…]

From listening to the press coverage, one almost gets the impression that campaign contributions and Congressional junkets are illegal. They are not. (As I understand the rather arcane law surrounding junkets, their legality depends on the identity of the entity that ultimately paid for the trip,) It is possible, of course, that Abramoff has lots more to say, and that the prosecutors, for some reason, chose to showcase only one of their less substantial claims in the information. Time will tell how much of the Abramoff story is smoke, and how much is fire.

I’ll defer to Hinderacker’s assessment of the legal case. It may well be that few or even none of the Members will be convicted of a crime. I’ve predicted before that Tom DeLay is likely to be acquitted. Escaping criminal conviction, however, is not the same thing as being an ethical and worthy public servant. Regardless of the legal fallout, severe damage has been done to the already low public esteem in which Congress is held and it may well be that the GOP’s hold on Congress, already rather tenous, will be further loosened.

Update 2: Kevin Drum contends,

One of the underreported stories of the past few years is the evolution of the Republican Party from being the party of capitalism and free enterprise to being merely the party of whichever business interests can help Republicans get reelected. There’s a big difference between being pro-market and being pro-business — in fact, they’re often diametrically opposed — but the difference isn’t always obvious until something like the Abramoff affair shines a bright light on it. If the Democratic Party is smart, this will be a learning moment for the country about not just garden variety corruption, but about the true nature of how the modern Republican Party operates.

This, it seems to me, overstates the case. While the Abramoff scandal(s) illustrate the pay-as-you-go nature of the system and the lengths to which politicians will go to raise campaign money, I don’t see how it demonstrates a major shift in GOP ideology.

While it’s likely that ethical–if not legal–lines were blurred in some cases, the main reason the Republicans have been so adept at strongarming lobbyists is that they hold the reins of power. From Nick Confessore’s piece, cited below:

When Reagan was elected and Republicans won the Senate, GOP activists urged business to donate more to their party. But a little-known California Democrat named Tony Coelho stopped them in their tracks. As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he reminded business lobbyists that his party still controlled the House and, with it, the committees and subcommittees through which any legislation would have to pass. […] But while Democratic power endured, it contained an inherent tension. For the most part, K Street groups supported Democrats because they had to and Republicans because they wanted to.

That tension is, for both good and ill, gone.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor 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.

Comments

  1. McGehee says:

    …it may well be that the GOP’s hold on Congress, already rather tenous, will be further loosened.

    Possibly. Much depends on whether there is enough “there” there to keep damaging stuff coming out over the next six to ten months.

    Otherwise, this whole thing would simply have blown over by the time the congressional campaign gets underway.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Kevin: Could be. A lot will depend on Iraq, the economy, and their ability to get legislation passed. But midyear elections are often bad for the incumbents and the early polling isn’t looking good, either. This may not hurt much but it sure won’t help.

  3. Anderson says:

    I must ask: has there ever been a poll in which most Americans did *not* consider Congress corrupt?

    If so, how long ago was that?

  4. Brett says:

    I don’t see what’s “arcane” about a law that prohibits corruption of public officials.

    Take a look at the information on the corruption of public officials from the full plea agreement starting here:

    http://talkingpointsmemo.com/docs/abramoff-plea-deal23.html