Jack Abramoff: Altering the Image of Black Raincoats

Posted: Feb 14, 2006 9:27 AM

The time has come to address the Abramoff Scandal. Let me make it clear: I know nothing about the workings of the scandal. As far as I can recollect I have met Abramoff only once. I never had a substantive conversation with him. I do have one burden on my heart regarding the whole mess.

One of the key figures in the scandal may be Anthony C. (“Tony”) Rudy, Representative Tom DeLay’s former Deputy Chief of Staff. I recommended Rudy to DeLay for employment. Rudy had been an excellent Senate employee and was known as a tireless worker. I thought DeLay would benefit by having some of Rudy’s expertise on his staff. Ironically, I never met with or spoke with Rudy once he was hired. There apparently are allegations that Rudy was an inside operative for Abramoff. Never would I have envisioned that Rudy might have behaved as allegedly he did. Oh, well, I have worse things on my conscience.

My comments about the scandal concern the politics of it all. At first glance it would seem that this scandal will harm Republicans more than Democrats. Republicans apparently accepted more money from Abramoff and his clients, although I must wonder if the vast majority of them had any specific knowledge why the contributions were flowing in. Democrats took money as well - in many cases not as much as Republicans but Democrats were not the party in power.

This is a touchy subject for Democrats. It became clear when Tim Russert, on Meet the Press, after listening to Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-NV) attack Republicans on the “culture of corruption” in Congress related to Abramoff, pointed out that Reid had accepted money from Abramoff. Reid shot back, telling Russert he had no business trying to make this a bi-partisan scandal. “This is a Republican scandal,” Reid barked at Russert. If it really were solely a Republican scandal not only would Reid not have reacted that way but he would not be compelled to react at all. Both new and old media would do his job for him.

As it stands now the new media is pounding away at the fact that Democrats received sizeable sums from Abramoff and the old media grudgingly has been forced to admit that was the case. In Montana, for example, Democrats have pounded away at Senator Conrad Burns (R), who is up for re-election this year, tying Abramoff and the scandal around Burns’ neck. Burns agreed to return the money and then it was revealed that Senator Max Baucus, Burns’ colleague from Montana and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, also took a sizeable sum from Abramoff and also is returning it.

While damage has been done to Burns it surely has been lessened as a partisan issue by the Baucus revelation. Whereas just about every Republican who has received money from Abramoff and his clients either has returned it or is donating it to charity Reid has refused to do either. Even Tom DeLay, who once called Abramoff “one of my very closest friends,” is donating his Abramoff money to a charity.

I sometimes disagree with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) but Gingrich absolutely is correct in telling Republicans to get in front of this scandal before it devours them. How will that be done? Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, M.D. (R-TN), anticipating that the Abramoff Scandal would be a major problem for his party, asked Pennsylvania’s endangered Senator Rick Santorum (R) to chair an effort to recommend a reform measure which would address the problems raised by the Abramoff Scandal.

Meanwhile, Senator John S. McCain, III (R-AZ), whose investigative work prompted much of what is disclosed these days, has proposed a lobby reform bill of his own. A colleague of ours who has read the bill says it is so draconian that lobbyists could not live with it.

I know the noun “lobbyist” has become pejorative in recent times. Some are crooks. The vast majority of lobbyists are honest people, merely trying to earn a living by getting their message across to the Congress and the Executive Branch. It is a means by which citizens can exercise a redress of grievances.

Ordinary folks find it difficult to run to Washington to pound on their Congressman or Senators to get a viewpoint across. Large companies have their own lobbyists. Smaller companies join trade associations to represent their views. Same for individuals. The ordinary gun owner finds it difficult to run to Washington to try to protect the Second Amendment. So a gun owner joins the NRA or Gun Owners to represent him. It also is true on the other side for the environmentalists. They join the Sierra Club or other groups so their views can be heard. If new lobbying legislation were to be so restrictive that it would preclude individuals, associations and corporations from being heard then that would be dangerously restrictive legislation.

The Abramoff Scandal also will give impetus to Senator Charles E. (Chuck) Grassley (R-IA), Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who wants to reform §501(c)(3) organizations – that is, not-for-profit entities. Some of the legislation he has been pushing would make it next to impossible for a group like the Free Congress Foundation to operate. If the Abramoff Scandal were to make that legislation a reality, and as with the case of Senator McCain’s lobbying bill, by far there would be more harm than good accomplished.

§501(c)(3) organizations can be reformed very simply to take care of the Abramoff problem. Simply prohibit pass-through money. Abramoff would give money to a public policy institution. That group would turn around and use that money to take Members of Congress on trips abroad. Often there was a legitimate purpose for the trip but too often the Members of Congress just played golf.

If pass-through money were to be eliminated it would not hurt the legitimate function of any §501(c)(3) public-policy foundation and it would eliminate an abuse that hurts us all. But to impose draconian regulations on public-policy groups and the individuals or foundations which fund them only would silence voices which support a particular point of view. Whom would that help except politicians who did not want their legislation or issues examined.

Want to eliminate many of the problems with lobbying? Shrink the size of the Federal Government. It is involved in nearly every activity known to mankind. When I came to Washington the Federal Budget was under $100 billion and the Federal Government was not involved in so many activities. Now with a $2.5 trillion budget we are funding projects which the Federal Government has no business funding.

During the same period I have watched government multiply in size I have watched lobbyists in this town multiply sixfold. Although the Heritage Foundation literally issues hundreds of studies, analysis papers and monographs each year, I am sure that President Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D, would be happy to issue a third as many if the Federal Government were not involved in so many activities. I am absolutely sure Richard Odermatt, Jr., Heritage’s Senior Editor, Research Publications, would be happy with less work. But the work is there because so many matters deserve comment. Heritage will be the first to admit that it only deals with the most important matters. There are hundreds more which get no attention.

Apparently the Texas prosecutor who has gone after Tom DeLay is demanding material related to DeLay’s involvement with Abramoff. Who knows where that will lead.

DeLay has withdrawn his effort to return as House Majority Leader. The House will have a leadership election in February. House Republican Members must decide who will lead them in this highly charged election year. If I could vote in that election I surely would be plugging for Representative Roy Blunt (R-MO), the Acting Majority Leader. I believe he has performed very credibly as Majority Whip and as Acting Majority Leader. He is a man of integrity who knows the difference between right and wrong. Republicans could do far worse.