The Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal currently encircling the United States Congress is the worst case of corruption to hit Washington in a long time, according to experts taking part in a Kennedy School of Government forum Tuesday night (Feb. 7).
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Abramoff and several associates have pled guilty to felony charges, and other indictments may be forthcoming as the investigation continues. Abramoff was associated with Tom DeLay’s K Street Project to bring Republican dominance to lobbying in Washington, and Delay had to step down as majority leader of the House in part because of his association with the disgraced lobbyist.
“This is not business as usual,” asserted Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. “We now have a government that has so much power and there is so much money involved that interest groups could see that if you made a little investment you could get contracts worth hundreds of millions or billions, and it didn’t take much money to do that. And Abramoff said, well, I should get 10 percent of this. So he raised the fees and brought even more money into it … and it’s going to reverberate for a long time.
“What makes this different is it’s not just a few bad apples,” Ornstein claimed. “It’s that people at the top decided to build in a kind of systemic corrupt process. That is different from what we had before.”
Where should the blame be placed for a system that has seemingly gone completely off the rails? The panelists agreed that the lobbyists in and of themselves aren’t the whole problem. But they are a good place to start.
Dennis Thompson, founding director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics, talked about the sheer number of lobbyists – 35,000, enough to fill Fenway Park – and the access to members of Congress that they enjoy.
But it isn’t just the lobbyists. “A lot of members of Congress want to frame this as ‘lobbyists gone wild,'” said Ornstein, adding, “The members of Congress are responsible. The media could have played a greater watchdog role as well.”
“I don’t think we’ve done nearly a good enough job tracking the money in Washington and the influence it buys in concrete terms,” said Ken Cooper, a veteran newspaper reporter and current fellow at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics (IOP).
“The fact that this was going on was kind of known,” said Dotty Lynch, who covered politics for CBS News for 20 years and is also now an IOP fellow. “I blame the press as well as the rest of the players in the institution for not doing something earlier.”
Then there is the amount of money needed to put a candidate into office in the first place.
“It has to come back to the amount of money in campaigns,” Lynch said. “Ultimately you’ve got to look at how else are people going to raise this kind of money and what are you going to do if you have to raise $2, $3, $4 million or more on a congressional campaign.”
Thompson agreed. “The root of the problem is money and campaign finance,” he said. But Thompson said reform shouldn’t be discouraged simply because methods of getting around new rules will always be found. “It is a constant struggle. There is a loophole, you close it. That’s to be expected. That’s the politics of reform.”
Can the Democrats capitalize politically on the scandal in this year’s elections?
“One of the problems the Democrats have I think is this perception that ‘everybody does it,'” said Lynch. The Democrats are trying to make it a Republican scandal, she said, but current polling shows Americans think both parties are at fault.
However, the notion of “ethics in Washington” hasn’t yet taken on full oxymoron status, the panelists agreed.
“Those of us who lived in Washington, whether as journalists or as politicians or as lobbyists, [know that] many are good, honest, people of great integrity and great concern for the public interest,” Lynch said.
The panel was moderated by Jeanne Shaheen, IOP director and former governor of New Hampshire.