“Our system is flawed and has to be fixed. Human beings populate our system. Human beings are weak.”
— Jack Abramoff on CBS’s 60 Minutes
If you didn’t watch the first segment on 60 Minutes last night—”Jack Abramoff: The lobbyist’s playbook“—then, as one American to another, I beg you to watch it. It is available online here (transcript here).
And if you did watch it and you’re not pissed off and ready to do something about our corruptive and corrupting political system, then you are, shamefully, jaded beyond redemption or, sadly, uneducable.
It’s that simple, my dear readers. The truth is that for some of our problems, the solutions don’t exist or elude us or are too complicated to explain. This isn’t one of those problems. There is something radically simple we can do about our money-is-boss politics—which is a problem for both political parties—but more on that later.
First, during the 2010 elections I tried to make an issue (here for example) of convicted felon Jack Abramoff’s relationship with my congressman at the time, Roy Blunt, who was running for our state’s open U.S. Senate seat. Blunt was a part of GOP House leadership when Jack Abramoff’s corruption was at its zenith, and his hands weren’t clean.
But Missouri voters—many of whom were allegedly “fed up” with Washington insiders—chose to ignore the facts about the ultimate insider Roy Blunt and his connection to the quite corrupt (self-admittedly so, thanks to his interview on 60 Minutes) Jack Abramoff, and, thus, we call Mr. Blunt “Senator Blunt” today.
On Sunday night, Abramoff said:
I think people are under the impression that the corruption only involves somebody handing over a check and getting a favor. And that’s not the case. The corruption—the bribery, call it, because ultimately that’s what it is—that’s what the whole system is.
Abramoff, who eventually served three and a half years in federal prison, knows what he’s talking about. The 60 Minute segment began with this description:
Jack Abramoff may be the most notorious and crooked lobbyist of our time. He was at the center of a massive scandal of brazen corruption and influence peddling.
As a Republican lobbyist starting in the mid 1990s, he became a master at showering gifts on lawmakers in return for their votes on legislation and tax breaks favorable to his clients. He was so good at it, he took home $20 million a year.
Abramoff’s first words in the segment were these:
I was so far into it that I couldn’t figure out where right and wrong was. I believed that I was among the top moral people in the business. I was totally blinded by what was going on.
While I don’t believe for a second that Abramoff was “blinded by what was going on,” I do believe that the fault for what he was able to do belongs, ultimately, with the American people.
We tolerate the Jack Abramoffs because of a kind of morbid hopelessness about politics (“they ‘all’ do it and there’s nothing we can do to stop it”) or because most Americans refuse to be bothered with politics until election time rolls around (“Who’s on Monday Night Football tonight?”). In between those elections is when the dirty work is done by people like Jack Abramoff and the politicians he courts.
Leslie Stahl, the reporter for the segment, introduced the stunning notion of the cost of “buying a congressman” this way:
STAHL: Jack Abramoff was a whiz at influencing legislation and one way he did that was to get his clients, like some Indian tribes, to make substantial campaign contributions to select members of Congress.
ABRAMOFF: As I look back it was effective. It certainly helped the people I was trying to help, both the clients and the Republicans at that time.
STAHL: But even that, you’re now saying, was corrupt?
STAHL: Can you quantify how much it costs to corrupt a congressman?
ABRAMOFF: I was actually thinking of writing a book — “The Idiot’s Guide to Buying a Congressman”— as a way to put this all down. First, I think most congressmen don’t feel they’re being bought. Most congressmen, I think, can in their own mind justify the system.
ABRAMOFF: –rationalize it and, by the way, we wanted as lobbyists for them to feel that way.
Abramoff said “most congressman don’t feel they’re being bought” and “in their own mind justify the system.” I have no doubt that is true, which makes the system so insidious and so damaging to the country. (And, by the way, as former six-term Republican congressman Bob Ney, who pleaded guilty to bribery as part of the Abramoff scandal, made clear in the 60 Minutes piece, Bush administration staffers were also part of Abramoff’s web of influence.)
You see, there are no Jack Abramoffs operating on behalf of those who need Congress the most, who need Congress to act on behalf of the unemployed—jobs bill after jobs bill is killed by Republicans in the Senate—or on behalf of a struggling middle class—whose wages and benefits decline while the top income earners enjoy unfettered prosperity—or on behalf of the infirmed and elderly—whose “entitlements” are under siege by would-be budget-cutters who refuse to raise even slightly the taxes on America’s wealthy elite.
Follow this exchange:
ABRAMOFF: At the end of the day most of the people that I encountered who worked on Capitol Hill wanted to come work on K Street, wanted to be lobbyists.
STAHL: You’re telling me this, the genius of figuring out you could own the office by offering a job to the chief of staff, say. I’m having two reactions. One is brilliant. And the other is I’m sick to my stomach.
ABRAMOFF: Right. Evil. Yeah. Terrible.
STAHL: ‘Cause it’s hurting our country.
ABRAMOFF: Shameful. Absolutely. It’s the worst thing that could happen. All parts of the system.
STAHL: I’m mad at you.
ABRAMOFF: I was mad at me–
STAHL: I’m not kidding. I’m not kidding.
ABRAMOFF: Look I did things and I was involved in the system I should not have been in. I’m ashamed of the fact I was there, the very reason why now I’m speaking about it. And now I’m trying to do something, in recompense, is the fact that I thought it was– it was wrong of me to do it.
We must face the fact that there is no Jack Abramoff ready to spend “over a million dollars a year on tickets to sporting events and concerts” so that a particular congressman will vote on the infrastructure-jobs bill.
There is no Jack Abramoff ready to triple the salary of a congressional staffer who will help convince his boss that he or she should not vote to balance the budget solely on the backs of working Americans.
No. The Jack Abramoffs in our system exist only to make the rich even more rich. And as long as the American people—most of whom are not among the rich—tolerate this system, then it will continue and there will be more Jack Abramoffs in our future.
But we can do something about it. Jack Abramoff himself suggested that members of Congress should be prohibited from ever—ever—becoming lobbyists:
ABRAMOFF: If you make the choice to serve the public, public service, then serve the public, not yourself. When you’re done, go home. Washington’s a dangerous place. Don’t hang around.
That would be an important start—but who expects members of this corrupt system to vote away the benefits of corruption?
For us average folks out in the hinterlands, there is no reason to sit on the sidelines any longer. There is a movement afoot to amend our Constitution to stop the whoring, stop the sleaze, stop the fraud. I wrote about it over a month ago and it is called Get Money Out. At the time I wrote, I think the petition had about 80,000 signatures. Today there are almost 240,000.
There are now two draft amendments proposed. The latest one is one I can enthusiastically support:
“No non-citizen shall contribute money, directly or indirectly, to any candidate for Federal office. United States citizens shall be free to contribute no more than the equivalent of $100 to any federal candidate during any election cycle. Notwithstanding the limits construed to be part of the First Amendment, Congress shall have the power to limit, but not ban, independent political expenditures, so long as such limits are content and viewpoint neutral. Congress shall set forth a federal holiday for the purposes of voting for candidates for Federal office.”
Jack Abramoff’s corruption represents just the tip of a very large iceberg. He got caught—thanks to the Washington Post—but there is no guarantee that cash-strapped, reporter-cutting news organizations can ferret out all the bad guys for eventual prosecution.
We must do something ourselves if we want to keep our democracy—Greek: demos = “common people” and kratos = “rule“—alive. If the common people truly rule, then they should rule the big money out of our political system.