Like the skunk at the garden party, Jack Abramoff just won’t go away. He--and more important, what he represents--now permeate the atmosphere in Washington, D.C., hovering over Tuesday’s State of the Union message and the coming votes on Republican leadership posts in the House. The stench will not go away with a spasm of narrowly focused lobbying reform, especially if it is the kind of reform that frames lobbyists as victimizers and lawmakers as their victims.
Congress has to keep its eye on the larger issues out there. One is the underlying honesty of the legislative process. A legislative process that bends rules and breaks norms leads inexorably to broader corruption. Another is the money system in politics, which is an inescapable element of the lobbyist-interest-Member dynamic.
It is a fascinating paradox. Nearly all House seats--at least 375--are considered safe from a general-election challenge. The holders of these 375 seats don’t need big bucks for their own campaigns, except for the handful who face possible primary challenges. Yet virtually all of them spend huge amounts of time raising political money.
Anybody immersed in Washington politics sees all around the evidence of an obsession with money that is reflected in Members’ relationships with lobbyists. I can’t go near the Capitol Hill Club or its Democratic counterpart without seeing a long list of upcoming fundraisers. I frequently go into downtown office buildings at the end of the day and see signs in the lobby directing visitors to the appropriate floor for the law firm or lobbying outfit that is hosting a political fundraiser.
And of course it is common practice now for lobbyists to be chairmen of the fundraising campaigns for the very Members they lobby, and for Members and their staffs to demand ever-larger amounts of money from the lobbyists who have business in front of them.
Some of this may be human nature: No politician ever believes he or she is safe. And a major part is certainly the rise of the leadership political action committee, which raises money for “the team” to finance the absurd costs of the smaller number of highly competitive races. Nowadays, the price of attaining a party or committee leadership post is a commitment to raising huge sums, often by selling access to lobbyists.
We ought to do away with, or at least curtail, the leadership PAC business and reduce the role of lobbyists in political fundraising. And of course we should go further, but not in ways that shut money out of politics. (We need lots of resources to make meaningful campaigns, and to provide any opportunities for challengers to compete in the uphill battles in gerrymandered seats.)
Instead, we need to replace the distorted money collected through the lobbyist-lawmaker nexus. We need incentives for candidates to raise more money from individual voters in small amounts. That would start with a tax credit for small contributions--a 100 percent credit for contributions of $200 or less. And it includes a reform endorsed by the business community through the Committee for Economic Development--a 3-to-1 match of public funds for contributions of $200 or less, once candidates have crossed a threshold of fundraising to establish their legitimacy.
Full public financing of Congressional elections is not an idea whose time has come. But the public disgust with the Abramoff scandal will make the case for some public money in elections, if done in the right way. As a share of the budget, we are talking about trace elements--a small price to pay to curtail the seedy dynamics we now have in Washington.
Now on to a second topic. I have been fascinated to see the vehement denials by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) of any connection to, or relationship with, the K Street Project. In Monday’s Washington Times, Santorum said, “We don’t have a K Street Project. ... I have never called anybody or talked to anyone to try to get anybody a position on K Street with one exception, and that is if someone from my office is applying for a job and an employer calls me.”
This quote piqued my curiosity, so I cranked up my trusty Nexis and searched back over the past several years for stories written about the K Street Project--before Abramoff copped his plea, and before this scandal erupted into a national issue. In other words, when it was still fashionable for Republicans to brag about their newfound clout in the majority. Here are just a few excerpts:
From an Aug. 2, 2002, article in The Washington Post by Jim VandeHei:
“The Senate ethics committee, reacting to a controversial document being assembled by Republican activists, plans to warn senators today not to use political affiliation as a basis for deciding who gets access to them or their staffs, a source familiar with the effort said last night.
“The committee’s warning comes in response to a Washington Post report in June that Republicans were researching the party affiliation and campaign donations of hundreds of lobbyists, as a way to deny government access and jobs to those who don’t share their political views.
“The research project, headed by GOP activist Grover Norquist, was discussed in June in a private meeting in the Capitol hosted by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Several Republican lawmakers already have copies of the dossier, dubbed the ‘K Street Project,’ according to GOP aides.”
From a July 13, 2003, Slate Magazine column by Timothy Noah:
“Every Tuesday morning, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., meets with a couple dozen Republican lobbyists. Here is how Nicholas Confessore describes the ritual in the July/August Washington Monthly:
“[T]he lobbyists present pass around a list of the [lobbying] jobs available and discuss whom to support. Santorum’s responsibility is to make sure each one is filled by a loyal Republican — a Senator’s chief of staff, for instance, or a top White House aide, or another lobbyist whose reliability has been demonstrated. After Santorum settles on a candidate, the lobbyists present make sure it is known whom the Republican leadership favors.”
From a Sept. 13, 2004, Roll Call piece by Brody Mullins:
“As recently as this summer, the GOP failed to convince the Motion Picture Association of America to hire a Republican to succeed Jack Valenti, who is set to retire as Hollywood’s man in Washington after a long and legendary tenure.
“Instead, the trade association announced in August that it had hired former Clinton administration Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.
“The move infuriated Republicans. Santorum even raised the issue of Glickman’s hire at a closed-door meeting of high-ranking Republican Senators.
“‘Yeah, we had a meeting and, yeah, we talked about making sure that we have fair representation on K Street,’” Santorum said soon after the hire. “‘I admit that I pay attention to who is hiring, and I think it’s important for leadership to pay attention.’”
“Some lobbyists speculate that Congressional Republicans will seek to punish the movie industry legislatively for tapping Glickman.”
From a subsequent Mullins piece on Oct. 7, 2004:
“Three months after Hollywood slapped the Republican Party by hiring Democrat Dan Glickman to head its Washington trade association, Congressional Republicans sliced more than $1 billion in tax credits for movie studios from a far-reaching international tax bill that the House and Senate plan to take up today.
“Though the tax credits for Hollywood were included in a version of the bill approved by the Senate this summer, a Republican-dominated conference committee voted Tuesday evening to leave the provisions on the cutting-room floor ...
“‘The Glickman thing is going to cost them. No Republican will fight for the movie industry,’ said one GOP lobbyist for the industry. ...
“Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, said there were three reasons Republicans voted against the movie-industry provisions: ‘One, it’s bad tax policy because it’s industry-specific. Two, it’s bad tax policy because it subsidizes an industry for signing bad labor contracts and, three, Hollywood has recently expressed contempt for the Republican leadership in the House, Senate and White House.’...
“Two weeks after Glickman was hired, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) convened a meeting of top Republicans to discuss the move.”
And finally, from a profile of Grover Norquist by John Cassidy in the Aug. 1, 2005, New Yorker:
“In recent years, [Norquist] has also been involved in the K-Street Project, an audacious attempt by Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, including Tom DeLay and Senator Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, to turn the busy thoroughfare where many corporate influence peddlers have their offices into an affiliate of the Republican Party.”
Who to believe? We report. You decide.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.