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March|April 2006
A Watchdog That Didn't Bark By Norman Ornstein
Shareholders Unplugged By Lynn A. Stout
Overprivileged By Francisco Ferreiro

A Watchdog That Didn't Bark

Jack Abramoff's guilty plea has made corrupt lobbying a very big story. Where were the media when coverage might have curbed the sleaze?

By Norman Ornstein

THE INVESTMENT COMPANY INSTITUTE is the major trade association for mutual funds. According to The Washington Post, in 2003, staff members and possibly the chairman of the House of Representatives' Financial Services Committee threatened the institute: If the ICI didn't fire its Democratic chief lobbyist and replace her with a Republican designated by the committee, hearings scheduled on whether mutual funds had overcharged their customers and kept important information from them would turn ugly. This kind of threat wasn't new. In 1998, Republican leaders in Congress reacted angrily to a decision by the Electronic Industries Association to hire former Democratic Congressman Dave McCurdy as its head instead of their choice, former Republican Congressman Bill Paxon. As retribution, the Republicans postponed a vote that the EIA favored and that was required to implement two international treaties about intellectual property.

The electronics association eventually got its treaties, but that series of events resulted in a rare rebuke by the House ethics committee of Tom DeLay, the Republican from Texas and then-majority whip (this was DeLay's first formal run-in with the ethics process). The threats reportedly made against the ICI were worse—embarrassing hearings followed by punitive legislation. The allegations about Congress intimidating and threatening to damage an industry for political gain were significant because they described a fundamental abuse of power.

In the weeks after the McCurdy case arose, as part of my regular dealings with reporters, I asked more than a dozen journalists who cover these issues or decide what gets covered to tell me why the mainstream media had not explored the larger issues raised by this out-of-bounds behavior. It was clear that the pressure on the EIA was part of a larger effort by the Republicans, the majority in Congress, to expand and cement their power beyond Capitol Hill. The journalists reacted with a collective shrug of indifference. A couple of reporters blamed their editors who, the reporters said, had no interest in scandal on Capitol Hill. I repeated the question when the ICI incident emerged. In a column in Roll Call, a Washington-based newspaper that covers Congress, I asked, "Where's the outrage?" Now, because of the Jack Abramoff scandal, it's being expressed, but long after it should have been—and long after it could have made a significant difference.

Sweetheart relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers are nothing new. When he was Senate majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson was linked to a number of lobbyists in Austin, Tex., and Washington, D.C., including Thomas G. "Tommy the Cork" Corcoran, the former FDR brain-truster who became a top lobbyist and with whom LBJ had a longstanding relationship. In her book Scandal, Suzanne Garment noted that if modern standards had been applied to Corcoran, "he would probably have been under continuous indictment for offenses such as attempted bribery and conspiracy to make illegal campaign contributions." Robert Caro, in The Path to Power, describes how Johnson received bags of cash for his first Senate campaign that had been channeled through lobbyists and oilmen. More recently, the efforts of Representative Tony Coelho in the mid-1980s to allow House Democrats to dominate Washington business lobbyists and secure a healthy share of campaign funds from them were documented in Brooks Jackson's book, Honest Graft: Inside the Business of Politics.

Forty years of Democratic majorities made it unnecessary for Democrats to strong arm lobbying organizations to hire only Democrats. Over time, those organizations accommodated themselves to the realities of where power lay. Individual Democrats, like Jack Brooks of Texas, could intimidate lobbyists with the best of them.

But after the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 1994 (the first time since 1954), their systematic plan in the next several years made Johnson and Coelho's offenses, and Jack Brooks's meanness, seem almost tame. Different in scope and brazenness, the Republican efforts contributed to a climate that was ripe for corruption and abuse of power.

The party's leaders pressured trade associations, companies, and lobbying firms to put only Republican allies—often specific ones—into top and mid-level lobbying posts. Then leaders successfully squeezed Republicans they had placed to contribute handsomely to individual Republicans' political campaigns, campaign committees, outside campaign groups, and leadership PACs—so that they could elect more Republicans and keep the party in power.

These efforts were called the K Street Project by its Republican progenitors, including DeLay, the antitax activist and tactician Grover Norquist, Pennsylvania's conservative senator Rick Santorum, and others in their circle. The relationships cultivated among lobbyists, lawmakers, and congressional staff went well beyond supplying campaign cash. If top lobbyists have always been able to influence the development and language of legislation—tucking amendments into tax bills, for example—their impact in the past several years has amounted to a quantum leap beyond that. They have had a much more direct role in drafting legislation like the major energy and bankruptcy statutes recently passed and signed into law. The relationship has clearly been two-way. Much of the initiative has come from leaders in Congress who have pushed lobbyists for support and have shaken them down for more campaign funding.

In November 1995, as this important change was beginning, the Post made a brief mention of the K Street Project—and didn't refer to it again by name until June 2002. With the exception of the ICI stories, almost all subsequent mentions of the project were descriptive and benign. This was in part because of the openness of the effort—the backers of the project made no effort to hide their plans—and the fact that on the surface there is nothing legally wrong with telling lobbyists that the friends among them will get more access than adversaries. But there's a line between acting on that message and using the power of the government for political gain, especially when that means giving pay-for-play access to lobbyists and letting them shape public policy directly. The line was clearly crossed, by a wide margin, as a result of the K Street Project.

There were a few stories along the way that referred to the GOP efforts to change the lobbying world. For example, the Post's Juliet Eilperin wrote a story in March 2001 that noted, "Just last week, Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) held a meeting with several lobbyists in which they agreed to come up with a list of candidates for several high-profile vacancies, including ones at AARP, the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Telecom Association."

Among the attendees at that meeting was Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who in January followed his former partner, the one-time DeLay aide Michael Scanlon, in pleading guilty to conspiring to defraud clients out of millions of dollars. Scanlon has also admitted to conspiring to corrupt public officials. Abramoff further confessed to evading federal taxes and running a wire fraud in Florida, and he has agreed to pay $26.7 million in restitution, penalties, and back taxes and to serve up to 11 years in prison.

His misdeeds have made him into Exhibit A for the broad corruption among lawmakers and lobbyists. But his chicanery and amoral approach to Washington were clear a decade ago, long before it came to light that he and Scanlon had charged Indian tribes $82 million to help them get licenses to build casinos or to block other tribes from getting their licenses approved. Abramoff first came to the attention of Washington watchers when he helped operate a foundation that was secretly funded by intelligence forces in the pro-apartheid South Africa to keep track of apartheid opponents.

Abramoff parlayed his close relationships with key conservatives like DeLay, Norquist, and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert into a lobbying machine, which sloshed money around town to and through key lawmakers and cronies with arrogance, greed, and venality. In one case, Abramoff used $2 million from eLottery, an Internet gambling firm, to try to stop a bill that would have curtailed the firm's business. Among other things, the money was used to pay a consulting fee to the wife of a top DeLay aide, Tony Rudy; at the same time Rudy was secretly helping direct the eLottery lobbying effort from inside DeLay's office.

Lavish additional funds went to persuade conservative groups led by antigambling leaders Louis Sheldon and Ralph Reed to attack the bill as pro-gambling—despite the bill's purpose of stopping gambling on the Internet—and to fund a golf junket to St. Andrews, Scotland, that included DeLay, Rudy, and Ohio Republican Robert W. Ney. In the case of Reed, elaborate efforts were made to channel the money in ways that would make it seem as if it weren't coming from a gambling group. Ney admitted to being the House member fingered by prosecutors as receiving "a stream of things of value," including the golf trip, from Abramoff in exchange for political favors. Stories about scandals involving South Africa, the Indian tribes, and other clients were reported early on in local and regional papers, but until recently Abramoff's role and the broader scandal were reported only intermittently by the Post and were largely ignored by The New York Times.

TODAY, TO THEIR CREDIT, the lions of the Washington press corps are all over the scandal story, finally awakened to the widespread corruption of power and politics in the nation's capital. Why does it matter that they neglected this misbehavior for years, now that Abramoff, Scanlon, DeLay, and other confessed and accused miscreants are under intense scrutiny, facing some combination of jailtime, financial penalties, indictments, federal probes, constituent flak, and blanket press coverage? Because, by failing at their watchdog role, the media allowed abuses of power in Congress to flourish and expand into a web of corruption and to provide even more temptations to which lawmakers could succumb.

Consider the dramatic expansion of so-called earmarks in Congress under Republican rule—contracts worth tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars directed to specific causes, communities, or companies through defense bills, transportation bills, education bills, and appropriations. Earmarks of all kinds are up tenfold or more since 1994—the 2005 transportation bill alone had 6,371 earmarks totaling more than $23 billion. The ability of lawmakers to expand earmarks should have raised strong suspicions that they were increasing opportunities for bribery as well. It was taking bribes in exchange for a kind of earmarking that got Republican Randy Cunningham, the former congressman from San Diego, in trouble. Marcus Stern, a Copley News Service reporter, grew suspicious of a Cunningham real estate transaction and, after further investigation, discovered that the deal was a funnel for a bribe. The bribe was used to get Cunningham, a member of the defense appropriations subcommittee, to steer a huge contract to a fledgling defense contractor. Last November, Cunningham pleaded guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes and resigned.

According to the Constitution, only Congress has the power to police its members in their official conduct, but it has always been reluctant to do so without an outside prod or substantial public pressure. This reluctance has grown more acute in the past decade, as a result of a change in House rules that blocked outside groups from initiating ethics complaints against lawmakers and of a pact between the major parties not to bring complaints against anyone from the other side of the aisle—a pact broken after a Democrat who lost his seat in the Texas redistricting of 2003 raised a series of complaints against Tom DeLay, complaints which in turn led to DeLay's current legal troubles.

But the national press's lack of interest in the K Street Project and similar abuses of power was a signal to Speaker Hastert that he could dismantle the House ethics committee last year without paying a public price. After the committee issued stern rebukes to DeLay for three cases of wrongdoing (with an additional case left pending), the speaker fired the committee's chair, Representative Joel Hefley, a Republican from Colorado, and two of its strongest Republican members, and replaced them with members who had given substantial sums to the DeLay legal defense fund. The new chair, Doc Hastings from Washington State, flouted the committee's longstanding rules by appointing a partisan staff leader, a controversy that shut down any meaningful ethics process for the past year. The Post, the Times, and other newspapers reported widely on the GOP attempt to change the party rules to shield Tom DeLay from removal as majority leader if he were indicted—forcing the party to reverse course—but mentioned the ethics committee purge only in passing.

THE LACK OF INTEREST IN SCANDAL until recently stands in stark contrast to the hyper-aggressive coverage of scandal in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then, stories were rampant about allegations of petty corruption against Speaker Jim Wright, the misuse of office funds and related offenses of House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, and rumors of excessive drinking and other misbehavior by Senator John Tower when he was nominated to be Secretary of Defense. The strongly populist and antigovernment mood of the late 1980s made any story of outrage by Congress a fashionable one to pursue—even in cases based more on rumor and innuendo than fact. The sometimes excessive coverage—a feeding frenzy, many called it—was unfortunate, but far better than little or no coverage of impropriety and arrogance of power.

By contrast, in the four years since September 11, the pro-government mood has made tough, cynical stories about official misbehavior less popular and, for at least a decade, changes in the political environment have discouraged such stories. A political system whose rifts have become dramatic in recent years has seen the partisanship spill beyond the institutions of government to reach the media. Reports or allegations of scandal, focused mostly on the Republicans, have been met with counter-charges in the conservative press of liberal bias, something the major mainstream media don't like to hear.

Many local and regional reporters and papers, as well as Roll Call, have covered the local angle of many recent corruption stories. But it's a fact of political life in Washington that if stories about scandal aren't covered prominently in the Post or the Times, then they aren't stories to the larger political and policy community. And if those stories don't get sustained attention by those papers, including frequent outraged editorials, they also don't get on television, penetrate public consciousness, and prompt lawmakers to bring ethics complaints about their brothers and sisters in Congress or initiate investigations, much less to clean up their collective act. That's true whether Democrats or Republicans are in power.

The way the K Street Project evolved helped create a climate for systemic corruption, one in which powerful legislators like Tom DeLay were tempted to push the boundaries of their behavior over established lines of propriety. Had these efforts been reported by the opinion leaders and agenda-setters in the press in detail from an early stage, the behavior of lawmakers and lobbyists would almost certainly have been more benign. Letting them operate in the shadows of the corridors of power without the well-known disinfectant of sunshine likely made what they did a good deal worse.

Norman Ornstein studies politics and Congress as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

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