WASHINGTON -- Two things need to be said about the sordid scandal surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff: Most lobbyists aren't crooks, and most members of Congress are honest.
Maybe this goes without saying, but we need to be reminded of it as the tale of tainted campaign contributions to buy influence on Capitol Hill unfolds and the investigation proceeds to find out who else will be caught in Abramoff's tangled web of deceit, deception and double-dealing.
While Washington lobbying as a profession has become a euphemism for shady practices and influence-peddling, I've known it to be a respectable trade, representing the large and varied interests of honest constituencies who want to make sure their views are fully presented and heard in the nation's capital.
Lobbyists here represent just about everyone, from mail carriers to big oil, from small businesses to the Fortune 500, from nursing homes to giant HMOs, from the homeless to the housing industry, from firearm companies to gun owners. These lobbying organizations were, by and large, begun by honest, hardworking people with collective interests who came together to protect and promote their causes, businesses, livelihood and legal rights.
There are very large, well-heeled lobby forces here that represent the big and the powerful, and modestly funded groups that represent the small and the weak. Individually, their voices are disbursed and unheard. But when they band together, they become a force to be reckoned with in the most powerful centers of the government.
They represent veterans, senior citizens, real estate brokers, bankers, farmers, doctors and nurses -- the full panoply of our country's citizenry.
In most cases, when a lobbyist calls on a lawmaker, the only thing they have to offer are their arguments or grievances in behalf of their position on some legislation, regulatory rule or misfortune.
In my business, lobbyists for organizations provide me with a lot of valuable information that often doesn't get reported on the nightly news. On any given week I will talk to lobbyists from dozens of these groups -- from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest of them all, to privacy-rights groups fighting to protect homeowners from big government seizures under eminent domain.
Having said all this, there is no doubt that Congress needs to tighten up its act on lobbying practices. What matters now is public perception and it isn't a pretty picture, even if we are only talking about golfing trips, lavish accommodations and free travel and meals. Even if it's completely above-board, and many of the details that have come to light are, it doesn't pass the smell test.
This is an election year and Republican leaders know they are going to have to be seen cleaning house to counter the Democrats' "culture of corruption" campaign offensive that they will flog for all its worth in the months to come. Campaign contributions from Abramoff and his cronies are being returned left and right, but that's just for starters. Expect reform legislation to be passed relatively quickly in the coming weeks, too.
But the idea the public sees this as just a Republican problem, as the news media seems to be playing it, is dead wrong.
When the Washington Post/ABC News poll asked voters last month which party was more ethical in its political and legislative dealings, both sides received failing grades: 12 percent said Republicans were better on ethics and 16 percent said the Democrats.
Notably, a whopping 71 percent said there was little if any difference between them.
Meanwhile, we need to keep some of the emerging details in all this in perspective. First, it is not illegal for someone, even a lobbyist, to make a campaign contribution to a member of Congress within the limits set by law. It is not illegal for former members of Congress or their staff members to set up a lobbying practice, providing they abide by the time limits before they can lobby members of Congress. It's also not illegal for lawmakers to attend a charity golf event or some other fundraising gathering and have one's expenses picked up by the sponsoring group, provided you abide by all the reporting requirements.
But Abramoff and his cronies were allegedly engaged in conspiracy to bribe officials, obtain kickbacks, defraud clients, and, according to authorities, got at least one lawmaker to provide their clients with a congressional contract or to insert special provisions into legislation.
Yet, as cynical as this sad story may make some of us feel about our lawmakers, let's remember that a good majority of the 535 members of Congress are honest and ethical. And most lobbyists here are performing an important public service for the interest groups they faithfully represent at the highest councils of government.