It didn’t take Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s guilty plea to three felony counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion to understand that the scale of corruption in the GOP-dominated Congress had risen to obscene heights. But it sure helps expose the cesspool of corruption in that GOP- dominated Congress.
“When this is all over, this will be bigger than [any government scandal] in the last 50 years, both in the amount of people involved and the breadth to it,” Stan Brand , a former U.S. House counsel who specializes in representing public officials accused of wrongdoing, told Bloomberg News. “It will include high-ranking members of Congress and executive branch officials.”
But what is to be done? Take a lesson from the good Senator from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold who, last July, launched a crackdown on government corruption.
In July, the tough-minded reformer, who with John McCain led the fight for passage of campaign finance reform, introduced the Lobbying and Ethics Reform Act in the Senate (Representative Martin Meehan (D, MA) has similar legislation pending in the House).
The bill’s key provisions are designed to reduce the power of special interests by forcing lobbyists to file disclosure reports quarterly instead of twice a year, prohibiting lobbyists from taking trips with members of Congress and their staffs, and requiring former members of Congress and some senior executive branch officials to wait two years after leaving government service before working as a lobbyist. And, as Feingold told The Hill, the bill would prohibit “lobbyists from giving gifts to members” or staff and require “members and campaigns to reimburse the owners of corporate jets at the charter rate when they use those planes for their official or political travel.”
Such a law–and even hardcore DC cynics may want to give it a better chance of passage after the Abramoff scandal winds its way through DC—would arrive just barely in the nick of time. The Center for Public Integrity published a must-read study last April showing that lobbyists have spent almost $13 billion since 1998 seeking to influence federal legislation and federal regulations. “Our report reveals that each year since 1998 the amount spent to influence federal lawmakers is double the amount of money spent to elect them,” the Center’s executive director, Roberta Baskin, pointed out.
Other findings are equally heart-stopping. More than 2,000 lobbyists in Washington had previously held senior government jobs, and in the past six years, “49 out of the 50 top lobbying firms failed to file one or more required forms.” According to other reports that the Center recently put out, some 650 foreign companies are lobbying the federal government on issues important to them, and spent more than an estimated $3 billion to influence decision-making at the federal level in 2004.
But we need to look beyond the numbers, and understand what happened in 1995 when the GOP launched its infamous K Street Project, to really understand why the corruption has metastasized with such velocity. That was the beginning of the push to put “conservative activist Republicans on K Street,” as Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist told journalist Elizabeth Drew–a concerted effort to install ideological comrades-in-arms who could steer money to the GOP, promote conservative causes in Washington and keep Republicans in power for years to come.
By 2003, the Republicans had achieved the goal of seizing control of K Street. That year, the Washington Post reported that the GOP had seized “a significant number of the most influential positions at trade associations and government affairs offices and reap[ed] big financial rewards.” The Post added that “several top officials at trade associations and corporate offices said privately that Republicans have created a culture in Washington in which companies fear hiring Democrats for top jobs, even if they are the most qualified.”
In recent months, Abramoff and now- indicted House Leader Tom DeLay have grabbed the headlines–Abramoff, in part, because he paid for Tom DeLay’s trip to London and Scotland in 2000 and stole millions of dollars in fees from his clients; and DeLay, in part, because he repeatedly violated House ethics rules. (In fact, from April 1 to June 30, DeLay accepted almost $800,000 in contributions from corporate lobbies like the telecommunications and real estate industries–a sure sign that the corruption continues unchecked, as the progressive group The Campaign for America’s Future has
And, in one more link in the growing Abramoff-DeLay money trail, a recent Washington Post story documented how Abramoff funneled some of the money he had skimmed from Indian casino operators through the Orwellian- named U.S. Family Network–a shell organization with a multi-million dollar budget which was termed by some of DeLay’s staffers–Delay’s “safe house.” (If one needs another reason as to why DeLay must immediately step down as House Majority leader, the Post story also reveals that this organization, organized by DeLay associates, has been largely financed by Russian energy interests.)
But it’s equally important to remember that the corruption comes not only from DeLay, Abramoff and cronies but also at virtually every level of the Republican-dominated Congress. The Hill, for example, reported last year that congressional staff have become so brazen that they “actively solicit lunches, drinks and other favors from K Street”–acting as if lobbyists are providing them with “their personal expense account.” When one Senate aide ran into a lobbyist at the Capital Grille restaurant, he asked the lobbyist to foot the bill.
“The arrogance that brought Republicans into power is arrogance that will take them out of power, and that’s what you see more of on the Hill,” a Republican corporate lobbyist told The Hill.
Democrats are likely to pick up seats just by continuing to hammer at GOP failures and corruption, and exposing the DeLay-Abramoff-K Street triangle for the corrupting force it truly is. But to engineer a landmark, “change election” that dislodges incumbents and marks a real shift, they will have to make themselves the party of change, championing a genuine crack down on corruption.
As our Washington correspondent John Nichols wrote yesterday in The Online Beat, “Only by being genuine in their commitment to clean up Congress will Democrats turn the Abramoff scandal fully to their advantage.” Feingold’s legislation is an essential step in reclaiming our democracy from these pay- to-play, immoral scam artists.
[Katrina vanden Heuvel has been The Nation's editor since 1995.]