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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Abramoff Story is Corruption, Not Lobbying 

Lobbying is a pretty slimy area, at least a lot of the time. It is, however, legal. Corruption and bribery, of course, is not. That's really the story here. All this "lobbying reform" talk is bullshit--it's the politicians, not the lobbyists, who are the real bad actors here. Mark Schmitt makes the case:
Please, Don't Say "Lobbying Reform"

Democrats and Republicans are falling over each other to introduce "lobbying reform" bills -- requiring lobbyists to disclose contacts with legislators, banning trips, etc. By the end of next week, we will have between two and four lobbying reform packages, and will enter a ridiculous debate about which bill would leave fewer loopholes.

Can I take this Sunday evening calm to plead with Democrats not to go down this road. Where’s George Lakoff when we need him??? Please don’t reinforce the frame that this is a "lobbying scandal" and the villain a "lobbyist" named Jack Abramoff. That’s the other side’s frame. This is not a lobbying scandal. It’s a betrayal-of-public-trust scandal. Lobbyists have no power, no influence, until a public servant gives them power. That’s what DeLay and the K Street Project was all about. What they did was to set up a system by which lobbyists who proved their loyalty in various ways, such as taking DeLay and Ney on golf trips to Scotland, could be transformed from supplicants to full partners in government.

Abramoff did lots of terrible things and should go to jail, but never forget that every single criminal and unethical act of his was made possible by a public official. On his own, Abramoff had no power. At another time -- say, 1993 -- he would have been a joke.

But every time we say "lobbying reform," we reinforce the idea that it is the lobbyist who is the wrongdoer. Sure, many lobbyists are slimy and aggressive. (Others, in my experience, can be helpful and informative, as long as you understand that they represent only one side of an argument.) But no one forces any legislator or staffer to accept lunches, trips, or favors from a lobbyist. And the reason not to do that is that the legislator risks surrendering some of her power, which is a public trust, to these private interests.

I’ll have more to say on specific proposals for reform in a day or two (hint: the best way to prevent these scandals is to put a watchdog on every member of Congress, in the form of an adequately funded challenger), but I just want to get this plea in immediately, to avoid the language that reinforces the idea that congressional leaders are helpless pawns of malevolent lobbyists.
Exactly. Here's a specific example provided by a commenter on Digby's Blog:
I think the simplest story that reveals the difference between what people perceive as 'big-business influence through lobbying" (which they relate to both parties) and the Culture of Corruption swirling around the Republicans is the one involving the Magazine Publishers of America.

Back in 2000 the magazine industry hired Abramoff as a lobbyist (he was then at Preston Gates Ellis) to help stem a proposed rise in postal rates. Now, most people can understand why the magazine industry would not want higher postal rates: it affects the bottom line of their business. Aside from printing, postage is one of their biggest costs. No one, of course, likes higher postal rates (and no one particularly wants magazine subscription rates to rise). But sometimes they are necessary to keep the postal system running. Nonetheless, it would seem perfectly legitimate for the MPA to hire a lobbyist to try to put their case before congressional members. One would assume the USPS would similarly be trying to jawbone legislators to present their side of the story, arguing FOR the need to raise postal rates. Senators and representatives should then duly consider the arguments from both sides and come to a decision about whether rates should rise or not.

This is not what happened. Mr. Abramoff was paid $525,000 by the MPA to seek a postal rate reduction in Congress. Did he make a heckuva case for them? Not exactly: he asked the MPA to give an additional $25,000 to a Seattle-based charity (slush fund) he'd helped found--and then he used that money (as well as another $25K from elottery) to help pay the salary for the wife of Tom Delay staff member Tony Rudy. It's called money laundering and bribery.

It's okay for lobbyists to collect money from clients to argue their cases before legislators. It's even okay (though problematic) for businesses or interests who have a stake in congressional legislation to try to elect the people they think can help them by donating to their campaigns, within the law. (Though I'd like to see changes in those laws.) What's not okay is money laundering and bribery. That is what a number of Republican Congressmen and their staffers are involved in here .... but no Democrats, to our knowledge.

The Democrats may be too tied to corporate contributions, and it's a problem that needs to be addressed. But we have thus far not seen any widespread shakedown, extortion, bribery, money-laundering schemes to which high-level Democrats or their staffers were party.

It's an easier story to understand than the baroque Indian tribe one (though smaller in scale). But it's been going on a long time, and DeLay and his staffers were at the very heart of it.

And yeah.... the Republicans are famous for defending their own until the fire gets too hot. The Democrats let go of Trafficante the moment his shenanigans hit the fan (it might even have been before), disavowing him. The Republicans have been trying to defend DeLay even AFTER his indictment. They got him to relinquish his leadership role, but they have in no way repudiated him formally.
The Traficant comment is a good one, too. That guy was ridiculously corrupt.

UPDATE: More fun Traficant info. Of course, it should be noted he was a lone wolf, and not emblematic of any systemic failures, unlike the current scandal vis-a-vis the Republican House.
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