Wednesday, January 04, 2006

LA Times: Abramoff Lobbying Group Was Key To GOP Political Strategy

Because idiots like Ed Henry of CNN keep passing along the meme that the Jack Abramoff scandal will take down equal amounts of Republicans and Democrats when the reality is that 90% of the Abramoff money went to the GOP, it's important that stories like this one from Janet Hooks and Mary Curtius of the LA Times about the "pay to play" system created by Republicans makes it into print:

WASHINGTON — 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.

Now, in the wake of a plea agreement in which Abramoff will cooperate in an influence-peddling investigation that might target a number of lawmakers, some Republicans are saying that the party will need to take action to avoid being tarnished.

"This is going to be a huge black eye for our party," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a senior member close to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "Denny's going to have to be very tough and really speak out against people who are indicted. He's going to have to do it quickly and decisively and frequently."

Hastert moved Tuesday to inoculate himself from the scandal by announcing that he would give to charity about $60,000 he received from Abramoff and his clients. He is the latest of several lawmakers who have returned or redirected money they received from Abramoff-related sources.

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.

Abramoff pleaded guilty Tuesday to corruption charges in connection with allegations that he bilked his Indian tribe clients and conspired to bribe a member of Congress. He also will plead guilty to charges in a separate case in Miami, in connection with a deal to buy a floating casino fleet, SunCruz Casinos.

Although Abramoff admitted Tuesday to illegal conduct in some of his dealings, much of what he did to influence Congress amounted to larger-than-life versions of legal practices common among lobbyists.

Abramoff did not just ply lawmakers with meals; he opened a restaurant and plied them with his meals. He did not simply hand out tickets to sporting events; he offered access to several luxury skyboxes. He did not arrange garden-variety golf outings; he brought golfers to the world's most exclusive courses.

"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."

For investigators, the question is whether any lawmakers returned Abramoff's favors by using their offices to benefit him or his clients, which could violate federal law.

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.

"Jack Abramoff is a classic example of the pay-to-play system carried out in the extreme," said Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21, a campaign-finance watchdog group.

According to a study by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, 296 members of Congress since 1999 have received contributions from Abramoff, his Indian tribe clients or SunCruz Casinos. Abramoff and his wife contributed $204,253 — all of it to Republicans.

In addition, Abramoff also leaned on his Indian clients to give to key lawmakers. The center found that Abramoff's clients gave almost $4.2 million, more than half to Republicans.

His most famous golf outings took members, including DeLay and Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), to the fabled St. Andrews course in Scotland. Such trips are against House rules if they are paid for by a lobbyist. DeLay and Ney said they believed the trips were properly paid for by a nonprofit group, but prosecutors are reportedly looking at whether Abramoff initially picked up some of the expenses.

Favors done for DeLay and Ney have drawn particular scrutiny because they took aggressive steps to help Abramoff or his clients on issues that seemed remote from their own constituents' interests. When Abramoff was trying to buy the Florida floating casino fleet, Ney inserted a statement in the Congressional Record critical of Abramoff's rival.

Abramoff had been hired to stall legislation raising the minimum wage for the U.S.-administered Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean, and DeLay was credited with helping him do so. DeLay also was an ally in Abramoff's effort to fight legislation to allow the taxation of Indian tribe gaming revenue.

DeLay and Ney, like other lawmakers who helped Abramoff, said they took action on the merits, not because they received favors from him.

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.

The GOP created this "pay to play" lobbying system, disenfranchised any lobbyists who worked with Democrats and used much of the money they made from the system to increase their political power at all levels of government.

Note that Tom Delay is under indictment for mixing up lobbying money and political contributions down in Texas, using the dough to increase the GOP majority in the Texas State House, gerrymandering the Congressional districts in Texas in the GOP's favor and adding five new Republicans seats to the Congress in 2004.

The Abramoff scandals and the Tom Delay scandal are just two examples of a corrupt incumbent Republican culture that has sold out its conservative principles for money and power. This is not to say that an incumbent Democratic majority had not also sold out its principles to money and power before the Republicans swept into office back in 1994. The problem in both cases was the corrosive influence of the obscene amount of lobbying money making its way to politicians in Washington and subverting the political process. And it has only gotten worse in the last decade. Newt Gingrich said as much today at a speech he gave at the DC Rotary Club where he noted :

The Abramoff scandal (and it is a scandal) is only one symptom of the growing profoundly unhealthy nature of power in Washington. Abramoff is the product of the system, not the system is the product of Abramoff. Abramoff did not create the system, but he did use it. It is important to start by stating flatly that this is not a lobbyist scandal. This is a lobbyist-incumbent-staff scandal. Abramoff and every other guilty person should go to jail.

The questions of lobbying should be looked at. But looking only at lobbyists protects the heart of the current system of incumbency protection-big government spending and power-Washington insider domination of the country which as a system is much more dangerous than the Abramoff scandal alone. The Congressional earmarks for pork, the special powers of Senators to blackmail the Executive Branch, the special provisions written into an overly complex tax code late at night in hidden meetings are symptoms of this larger problem of which Abramoff is only the tip of the iceberg. Efforts to focus reforms only on lobbying are efforts that will fail to move beyond the symptoms and look at the entire disease of corrupt power which is slowly engulfing the national government.

The election process has turned into an incumbency protection process in which lobbyists attend PAC fundraisers to raise money for incumbents so they can drown potential opponents, thus creating war chests which convince potential candidates not to run and freeing up the incumbents to spend more time at Washington PAC fundraisers. The McCain-Feingold limits create ridiculously low contribution limits which requires more and more time be spent raising money in small amounts to maintain the war chests.

Faced with incumbency protection, lobbyist friends, and huge war chests, House and Senate Members find it impossible to say no and simply keep bloating the federal government into a bigger and bigger engine of spending which attracts even more money into lobbying and interest group activities and makes the system even more vulnerable to corruption.

I'm not sure I agree with all of the reform solutions Gingrich proposed in today's speech, but I sure do agree that something's got to be done about the way the system is now run.

Unfortunately I don't have my own solution to all of this influence-peddling and legalized bribery taking place in Washington. I fear that no matter what is done, after this Abramoff scandal ends and the frog-marching stops, some other corrupt people and/or corporations will pop back up to create another "pay for play" system that subverts the good of the nation.

Nonetheless, it will be nice to see some of the fuckers implicated in this scandal, like Tom Delay, Bob Ney, Conrad Burns, John Doolittle, and all those Delay staffers, get washed away in the cleansing frog-marches to come in the next six months or so.

And if one or two Democrats like Byron Dorgan or Patrick Kennedy are dirty and provided quo for the quid or quid for the quo in the Abramoff scandal, then let them go down the drain with Delay, Burns, Ney and the gobs of other GOPer's implicated in the scandal.

Dirty is dirty, no matter the party.

But I don't think Dorgan or Kennedy are going down in the scandal. As First Read noted today, quoting Roll Call (subscription required),

“Nothing released Tuesday by Justice gives any hint that the inquiry is dealing with Congressional Democrats or their former staffers, a handful of whom went to work for Abramoff when he was employed by the firm Greenberg Traurig.”

Sounds like it's only people connected to the K Street Project and/or the "pay for play" system who are going down in the scandal.

And that would be Republicans.

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