Infamous former lobbyist Jack Abramoff claims to be a changed man. After making millions of dollars manipulating the system, Abramoff, who was once chairman of the College Republican National Committee and close friends with ex–House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, is now working with liberal lions like Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig and good-government groups to reform the practices that made him immensely wealthy and influential—and ended up sending him to prison for 43 months. As the author of the book Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist and the host of a radio show on XM Satellite Radio, Abramoff has made it his personal mission since his release to spread the word about his past wrongdoing in an effort, he says, to do recompense. City & State Editor Morgan Pehme asks Abramoff if all lobbyists are dishonest, how the system can be improved, whether it’s naive to think that it can be and why anyone should trust him given his history.
City & State: Is the system of lobbying in our country inherently corrupt or is our government populated by corrupt people who take advantage of a system that is vulnerable?
Jack Abramoff: I think the system is corrupt in a very refined way. It’s not crudely corrupt like it used to be where it was not at all a bother to anyone that someone would walk into an office such as Lyndon Johnson’s when he was the Senate Majority Leader and hand him a sack of cash. That was the old days. Now it’s much more refined and more polite, but it’s certainly corrupt. So the system is corrupt, but I don’t think the people view themselves as corrupt. I didn’t view myself as doing anything wrong in that respect and that’s the problem; that it’s commonplace to engage in, in essence, bribery because no one is trained to think of it as bribery. And so I think most people in the system are good people but they are in a system that itself in its core is corrupt and certainly many, many, many take full advantage within the boundaries of the law and some, like I, go over the law, over the boundaries. It’s not necessary to go over the boundaries, but even within those boundaries there’s tremendous capacity for corruption and for acting despicably.
CS: So you are saying that there are good people who are lobbyists and that you can be a lobbyist and not engage in practices that are unethical or unsavory.
JA: The short answer is yes. Most lobbyists are very good people. Most congressmen are good people. They’re in a system where this is legal, this is normal, this is okay. People outside the Beltway don’t think it’s normal, but they’re very insulated in Washington. They really only listen to themselves on this issue. But in terms of being a lobbyist and not engaging in the use of financial resources to influence people, which is the essence of the problem, yeah, you can do that, as long as you’re not up against a lobbyist who is doing that. Once you are up against a lobbyist who is doing that, nine times out of 10 you’re going to lose, and so as a consequence you wind up with everybody who wants to be at the upper, top level engaging in it.
CS: So does legislation ever get past in Washington on its merits?
JA: Well, very few pieces of legislation get passed in Washington and this has been the case since the parties became much more hardened into their ideological positions. I’m not certain it’s a bad thing, by the way, because I’m not certain that much of what they want to do to the country should be done. I wrote a column about this—I have a controversial opinion about this, though for me, everything I do is controversial—but my view is I hope they don’t get along. When they get along, we all suffer. When they get along they pass taxes and spending and dumb invasive rules and criminal laws and all sorts of other stuff that basically make us miserable as a country. There’s very little they do that really solves problems… Most things that they pass are basically political plums for their favored interest and this is true on both sides, so not doing things is a good thing as far as I’m concerned…. Are any good laws passed? Yeah, things can get passed, but the problem is they get passed, but if they’re a “moving train” as it’s called—a piece of legislation that’s going to get to its destination—there are all sorts of folks looking at that to try to throw some things into some of the box cars when nobody’s looking, or if it’s something that’s reform-oriented they’ll water it down so much that it really is meaningless. For example, the STOCK Act that was recently passed to address the problem of insider trading. Well, the way to address that problem is to prohibit anybody who is on Capitol Hill, member or staffer, from engaging in any trading, period. Every asset they have should be put into a blind trust, something that is administered in a public fashion away from them, and they can keep their assets, but that should be the case. And I’m against lifetime legislators anyway. So for the period that they’re there, that should be the case. That’s the reform they need. Instead the reform they have is that if they do trading they just have to let us know. So what? You let us know. And then what? There’s no consequence to it. So, I let you know. I bought some stock. And? So that’s the problem. Even good legislation unfortunately often becomes perverted because of the system.
To read the full interview at City & State click here.
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