Making Reform From the Abramoff Scandal

The American system of pay-to-play governance has been thrown into a moment of turmoil by the perverse greed of Jack Abramoff and the lobbying network in which he played the ringmaster. This is a window of opportunity to talk about political reform. But, as citizens, we face three hazards: demanding too much, settling for too little and leaving the whole thing to the two dominant parties to deal with.

Without a grass-roots effort putting heat on congressional members from their districts, the scandal may very well fade into pseudo-reform.

What's needed is a one-two punch: Graphically lay bare the infection of corruption among the current crop in Washington, while calling for realistic changes to the system itself.

Some will argue that pushing the Democrats' electoral advantage is all that matters. It's better to run against a corrupt party, they'll say, than it is to make repairs to a broken system. But by pushing the Democrats to call for political change that is at once focused and pragmatic -- and is also far more than the Republicans could ever accept, the grassroots can take the initiative.

The fact that we won't see Tom DeLay back at the helm as House majority leader suggests that even the rank and file in the GOP are wary of the impact of corruption's taint in the 2006 election. Conventional wisdom is that it is nearly impossible to swing the Congress given how gerrymandered the seats are to protect both parties. But every once in a while, as happened in the Gingrich-led sweep of Congress in 1994, the conventional wisdom can be stood on its head, and the Republicans are nervous.

This tale of corruption reflects just how much the federal government is creaking along on outdated 18th-century gears. Yet it is not going to be easy to move an agenda calling for a complete overhaul.

The public has historically strong support for campaign finance reform, and there is strong support for changing our lobbying system. But reform can take one of two courses. The 1970s Cointelpro scandal, for example, led to a fundamental re-examination and reworking of the laws that govern intelligence gathering in the U.S. The other course is that of placebo reform. Despite all the smoke and fury around the Enron and WorldCom scandals, they resulted in only one good but narrowly focused piece of legislation, Sarbanes-Oxley, which basically addressed one element of business corruption, double accounting standards. And ever since it passed, the business community has been chipping away at it systematically.

If progressive groups and concerned citizens don't get engaged and express their outrage, the Abramoff investigation may well become just another forgotten scandal. In pressing that case, grass-roots activists should keep in mind that the Democratic establishment needs the base on this issue. Some fresh opinion research by DriveDemocracy, a Texas-based progressive group, found that:

… where coverage and personal conversation have been intense (West Austin Republican-leaning suburbs, DeLay's district near Houston) embarrassed and shamed moderate voters are fleeing the GOP and considering Democrats for the first time in years. But in other areas of the state, where coverage, conversation and grassroots activity have been less extensive, voters are clinging more tightly to the legs of their abusive GOP daddies. GOP numbers are actually going up.
Both parties are jockeying for position, trying to become the "party of reform." If the Democrats have a broad reform movement behind them, they'll win the day. But that movement can only coalesce behind demands for substantive change. And if left alone to do it, we will get thin gruel indeed. Rahm Emanuel, the man charged with overseeing the Democratic takeover of the House in 2006, has given lip service to the notion that Democrats will be the party of "change," without elaborating quite what he means.

And Emanuel, the former Clinton insider is known more as a player than a reformer.

Here's a one-two punch for reform we should all rally around: The left jab is debunking the myth that the Abramoff and related scandals are little more than business as usual.

The narrative of the Abramoff scandal emerging from the right that it's a minor bipartisan issue fueled by little more than partisan outrage must be challenged head on. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, R-Calif., said of Abramoff, "I think he's been dealt a bad hand and the worst, rawest deal I've ever seen in my life … Words like bribery are being used to describe things that happened every day in Washington and are not bribes."

A closer look, however, reveals an astonishing, brazen level of corruption and literal theft by Abramoff and his cohorts. It's vital that the Abramoff scandal be used to shine light on the whole corrupt infrastructure of the New Conservative movement. Abramoff's activities touched on everything, from Christian-right coordinated campaigns on behalf of gambling interests to funding phony "black conservative" front groups.

The second punch is to call for a reform agenda that's realistic but deep and tangible. First, this is a moment to demand real lobbying reform. Senator Russ Feingold. D-Wi, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., are pushing bills that will ban lobbyists' gifts to lawmakers outright, but there will be heavy resistance. The swag the corporate lobbies throw at Congress is the grease that lubes the whole system. A lobbyist calling a legislator with no goodies to offer is just a constituent in a fancy suit waving position papers around, and they know it.

The limits currently on lobbyists' loot is a joke; they're routinely ignored. Compromise measures that just propose to tighten up reporting rules or that place caps on the value of gifts should be rejected. When I do my job or you do yours, we aren't showered with tickets or meals or drinks or trips. So no gifts for the pols either.

And let's go a step further and demand that legislators lose their special access when they leave office. One of the reasons so much lucre is dangled in front of former lawmakers is that they can get onto the House floor and use the gyms and the cafeterias to glad-hand their successors. Do you get the same access to your former places of employment after you've left? They shouldn't either.

Those measures would pain the booming influence industry. And while there are plenty of well-coiffed Democratic lobbyists, it's the Republicans who have created a seamlessly integrated synergy with K Street.

Second, Abramoff's role as ber-campaign fundraiser means the moment is now for clean elections. It's a voluntary public financing system that allows lawmakers to focus on their jobs, not spend all their time looking for handouts. The clean elections model has been successful in Arizona and Maine, and it's time to start promoting the idea nationally. Clean elections bring in more minorities, more women, and more independents. They have the potential to give third parties a chance. Bumper sticker: "Isn't our democracy worth five bucks?"

Finally, we should shut the revolving door that joins industry and their lobbyists with government agencies and the legislature. The Revolving Door Working Group has a number of excellent proposals, including extending the amount of time officials are required to stay away from lobbying gigs after they leave office. Some will say those kind of measures are just a start, and they're right. But they're a very good start. A coalition that delivers grass-roots heat in each congressional district for Democrats to spell out these concrete demands will build momentum for more fundamental reforms to our political system.

Abramoff isn't a gift for us to sit back and enjoy; the opportunity is there for the taking.

**Note: this article has been corrected. An earlier version identified the Revolving Door Working Group as a project of Public Citizen. Public Citizen is a member of the group.

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