Jeff Birnbaum, the Washington Post’s K Street correspondent, pens an important article in The Washington Monthly about potential shifts in Washington’s political culture in the wake of the Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham scandals:
So far, the scandal surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff has produced some vivid and memorable examples of modern Washington graft–skybox tickets, pricey restaurant meals, golf junkets to Scotland. Yet at the center of the scandal is something more prosaic, and potentially far more explosive: good old-fashioned campaign donations. Deep in the plea agreements won by Justice Department lawyers are admissions by the defendants–Abramoff and his cronies, ex-DeLay aides Tony C. Rudy and Michael Scanlon–that they conspired to use campaign contributions to bribe lawmakers. Even though these gifts were fully disclosed and within prescribed limits, the government said they were criminal, and the defendants agreed. This aspect of the case has received little attention. But it is sending shudders down K Street. If such prosecutions were to become commonplace, the paid persuaders of Washington and their big-money clients would be dealt a body blow. If prosecutors begin to assert as a matter of routine that lobbyist gifts and campaign contributions are a form of bribery, it could open up a whole new front on the decades-old (and largely ineffective) effort to break the nexus of money and politics in the capital.