As a U.S. lawmaker steps down for taking bribes and others face a separate corruption probe, the relationship between money and power in Washington is coming under increased scrutiny.
California Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham faces 10 years in prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes to help secure Defense Department contracts.
The Justice Department also is seeking to prove that other lawmakers accepted campaign contributions, lavish trips and other gifts from former lobbyist Jack Abramoff in return for favorable treatment for his clients.
Abramoff’s expected cooperation in the probe could spell trouble for Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, also a Republican, who have ties to the lobbyist.
The investigation has highlighted the close relationship between the 535 members of Congress and the 27,000 registered lobbyists who shower them with sports tickets and other perks.
“It does seem like there’s been a terrible gray area, a lot of money floating around Washington, and a lot of things that are borderline acceptable,” said Penn State political science professor Frank Baumgartner. “It would not surprise me if a number of people end up implicated in this.”
Lobbying firms took in $2.14 billion in 2004, up from $1.47 billion in 1999, according to the PoliticalMoneyLine Web site.
General Electric Co. alone paid $17.24 million to 17 different lobbying firms last year. “We think it’s wise to ensure that our employees, retirees and investors are well-represented when there are issues that are discussed that affect them,” company spokesman Gary Sheffer said.
Many lobbyists are former lawmakers or their aides, who can exchange contacts for hefty paychecks after leaving office.
Forty-three percent of the 198 lawmakers who have left for the private sector since 1998 have become lobbyists, according to the public-interest group Public Citizen.
When Louisiana Republican Billy Tauzin stepped down as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2004, he took a job heading a drug-industry trade group that reportedly pays him $2.5 million per year.
Top staffers now expect starting lobbyist salaries of $300,000, according to the Washington Post.
That sets up a conflict of interest, because lawmakers and staffers may be reluctant to push policies that hurt their future job prospects as lobbyists, Baumgartner said.
Lawmakers’ relatives, including a son of Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert and four sons of Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, often work as lobbyists.
Bonds between lobbyists and lawmakers have been tightened in recent years by a Republican effort to fill top lobbying jobs with congressional staffers and other party loyalists who can raise money and help Republicans stay in power.
With weak ethics oversight in Congress, it is no surprise that something like the Abramoff scandal would arise, said Mike Surrusco, director of ethics campaigns for the nonprofit group Common Cause.
Lawmakers have moved to clean up their act as Congress enters an election year. Several have returned campaign contributions from Abramoff clients; others have proposed tougher lobbying rules.
The House Ethics Committee plans to end its partisan gridlock and take up several reforms next year, said a senior Republican aide familiar with the issue.
“The Republicans need to demonstrate that there’s a functioning ethics process in the House, and the Democrats … they’d like to get some scalps on the wall,” the aide said.
© Reuters 2005.