The political scandal that won’t die

How many rats does it take to spoil the holiday season for a potential boatload of lawmakers? Well, so far there have been two and now it looks like the king rodent in a burgeoning lobbying scandal is in the process of jumping a sinking ship.

Pardon all the mixed metaphors, but according to news reports super influence peddler Jack Abramoff is talking about a deal in the Federal investigation that openly has targeted one House member and is delving into the activities of a number of others, including the former Republican majority leader Tom DeLay, already under indictment in his home state of Texas.

As we all know, Abramoff’s two partners, Adam Kidan and Michael Scanlon, already have cut deals with the feds to rat on Abramoff and those they tried to influence with money from Indian tribes. Abramoff himself has been charged with fraud in Florida in connection with a casino boat scam that apparently involved the Mafia.

Where do these guys come from? Like ending a sentence with a preposition, they seem now to be an integral, if offending, part of the language of our time, often rising to the depths of sleaze from a stint on Capitol Hill where they learn how easy it is to sway legislation in an atmosphere where the need to raise tremendous amounts of money to finance reelection collide daily with integrity and duty. Their cont acts and expertise become enormously salable to the special interests seeking advantage for whatever cause or industry, and before one can say the word “bribery” they are riding high on K Street in the dozens of firms who make a huge living off such endeavors.

It is a sad but accurate commentary that most legislation is either written or suggested or enormously influenced by off campus interests _ that is those who haunt the halls and hearing rooms of Congress. Many have either once held public office and decided to make real money as former members; are former aides to those still in office, like Abramoff, or are bright young lawyers who have joined one of the influential law firms and worked their way up to representing one group or another. It’s a bipartisan effort.

Don’t be so naive as to believe that this is a new problem. It has been going on since the days of Daniel Webster, who allegedly took money to sponsor legislation, but the stakes and the amounts have increased dramatically with the escalation of campaign spending, the growth of government, and the pressures of a global economy. Serving in the House or Senate necessarily has become a full time occupation, and considering the pressures, demands and importance, it is one that does not pay very well.

That fact alone has left the door wide open for the likes of Abramoff and his colleagues who have been nurtured in the corrupting power of the Hill. They simply understand how the game is played and how financially under rewarded are those who are elected to play it. The chance for those outside the official system to make huge amounts of money is so alluring, they are willing to do what is necessary, skirting along the ethical and legal lines until they step over. No manner of precedent seems to deter them. But then why should it? In reality only a tiny percentage of those eligible have ever been caught and punished.

Washington truly is a city where what one knows is far less important than who he or she knows. So much of what goes on here is based on personal persuasion and cronyism. If all this seems inordinately cynical, chalk it up to 42 years of watching the passing political parade. Like the movie Groundhog Day, the same scenario just keeps playing over and over endlessly. It seems there is a Jack Abramoff nearly every decade.

Of course, a preponderance of lobbyists for Native Americans or oil companies or government workers or foreign interests or drug manufacturers, are honest and ethical. They make a public service contribution to the system that is necessary. Lobbying itself is not bad. Only when it is used to utterly corrupt the system at the expense of the public as Abramoff and friends appear to have done in this instance, is it evil.

How many lawmakers Abramoff and his allies will drag down with them is still being determined. But one, like Republican Rep. Robert Ney of Ohio, who has been named a target, is too many. Abramoff should be a lesson to all those who aspire to influence the decisions of government. But don’t bet on it.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)