Big on money, short on memory

DURING THE HEIGHT of his power, nobody in Washington had any doubts about super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s partisan loyalties. Now that Abramoff is being accused of bilking Indian tribes, misappropriating funds, bribing members of Congress and generally being held up as a symbol of Washington corruption, memories on the GOP side are growing hazier.

As President Bush told Fox News last week, “Abramoff -- I’m not, frankly, all that familiar with a lot that’s going on over at Capitol Hill, but it seems like to me that he was an equal money dispenser, that he was giving money to people in both political parties.” Not much of a Republican at all, you see. Really a bipartisan figure. Sort of the David Broder of corruption.

May I refresh the presidential memory?

Abramoff came into politics by way of the campus-based, student-run College Republicans, where he served with future party big shots such as Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist. While running the College Republicans, he said: “It is not our job to seek peaceful coexistence with the left. Our job is to remove them from power permanently.”

The apotheosis of this mentality was something Republicans called the “K Street Project.” The idea was that, once Republicans had won control of Congress in 1994, they would not permit the business lobbies centered on K Street in Washington to split their loyalties between the two parties, as they had always done. Henceforth they had to employ, and donate funds to, Republicans, mostly if not exclusively.

Abramoff was a key figure in this project. “It was my role to push the Republicans on K Street to be more helpful to the conservative movement,” Abramoff recalled to Michael Crowley in a recent New York Times Magazine profile. Republicans concurred at the time.


“He is someone on our side,” Tom DeLay’s chief of staff, Ed Buckham, explained to National Journal magazine in 1995. “He has access to DeLay.” DeLay once called Abramoff “one of my closest and dearest friends.” Abramoff hired multiple DeLay staffers as lobbyists, and his assistant later went to work for Karl Rove.

Abramoff epitomized the new breed of partisan lobbyist who advanced the GOP cause even as he enriched himself. As Norquist enthused at the time: “What the Republicans need is 50 Jack Abramoffs. Then this becomes a different town.” By this Norquist, who continued to work with Abramoff, meant that Republicans would gain an insurmountable financial advantage by destroying the old bipartisan culture. (Indeed, Norquist once compared bipartisanship to date rape.)

It’s true, as Bush noted, that Abramoff gave money to some Democrats -- about a third of his donations. But giving some money to the other side does not make you bipartisan. Anybody who’s anybody in Washington, even the most committed partisans, find it useful to recruit members of the other party to advance their goals from time to time.

Does this mean that Republicans are inherently more corrupt than Democrats? Of course not. Corruption tempts right and left alike. The difference is that Republicans gained a near monopoly on power, and hence a near monopoly on opportunities for graft. Indeed, they’ve spent much of the last decade reveling in their power, gloating openly that anybody who wanted to do business in town had to deal with them. “If you want to play in our revolution,” DeLay famously declared, “you have to live by our rules.”

They openly threatened, and carried out, retaliation against lobbies that dared to stray. In 2003, the Washington Post reported that House Financial Services Committee Chairman Michael Oxley offered to ease up on his investigation of the mutual fund industry if the industry replaced its top lobbyist, a Democrat, with a Republican. The next year, when the motion picture industry resisted entreaties that it hire a Republican as its top lobbyist, Norquist threatened that the industry’s “ability to work with the House and Senate is greatly reduced.” Sure enough, the motion picture industry was left out of the 2004 corporate tax package, which was otherwise an indiscriminate smorgasbord of favors to every lobbyist in town.

Republicans were happy to broadcast their close ties to lobbyists back when they brought little scrutiny and lots of money. Now that Abramoff and other lobbyists are suddenly a political liability, Republicans are retroactively happy to share power with the other side. If they’d been a bit less greedy then, they’d be in a bit less trouble now.