Citizen Muckraker

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Jeffrey Birnbaum has a tremendously thoughtful piece in the Washington Monthly exploring what the ongoing corruption investigations and prosecutions that stem mostly from Jack Abramoff’s exploits. Full disclosure, I’m a pessimist by nature, so take that into account, but as I read Birnbaum’s piece, I can’t help thinking that his notion that we might be seeing an end to legalized bribery—by which he primarily means the system by which we finance campaigns—is overly optimistic and a little premature.

At the core of Birnbaum’s argument is that practices that have long been regarded as de rigeur are now finding their way into indictments:

The pleas stemming from the Abramoff scandal all involve campaign donations. According to Abramoff’s plea agreement, he, ex-DeLay aide Michael Scanlon, and others “engaged in a course of conduct through which one or both of them offered and provided a stream of things of value to public officials in exchange for a series of official acts…. These things of value included, but are not limited to, foreign and domestic travel, golf fees, frequent meals, entertainment, election support for candidates for government office, employment for relatives of officials, and campaign contributions.” The plea deal for Tony Rudy, also a former DeLay aide, lists “election support” among the things of value he gave with Abramoff and others.

The Abramoff and Scanlon pleas get very specific. The contributions that they swapped for favors included $4,000 to the campaign committee of “Representative #1” and $10,000 in contributions to the National Republican Congressional Committee “at Representative #1’s request.” Representative #1 has been widely identified as Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who is under investigation as part of the Abramoff scam. Ney denies any wrongdoing. Officials close to the investigations say that possible campaign-donation bribery is also being looked at as part of the ongoing probes of as many as six other lawmakers.

I suspect that the campaign-donation bribery suspicions related to the other six lawmakers include, as it was with Abramoff and Scanlon, amount to one charge among many. I find it hard to believe that a prosecutor is going to go into court waving an FEC record showing $4,000 in contributions from, say, a pharmaceutical firm and arguing that a vote for the prescription drug bill is evidence of bribery. What made the Abramoff prosecutions and pleas possible was not just campaign contributions, it was also the lavish trips and golfing outings and–perhaps most importantly (and unmentioned by Birnbaum), the profusion of emails that created a paper trail for prosecutors to follow. I imagine that Jack Abramoff is not the only lobbyist with a paper trail of too candid emails. (It would be interesting to see whether firms are taking steps to purge their archives, and whether members of Congress and their staffs are similarly worried about electronic paper trails.)

And, contra Birnbaum, I doubt that Washington behaviors are changing as much as he says, when he writes,

The Abramoff incident has thrown official Washington into a whirl of self-examination and relative self-denial. All sorts of accepted rules and behaviors are being reconsidered. Many lawmakers and congressional staffers are voluntarily staying away from the fancy dinners and lunches that lobbyists love to host, at least for the time being. And one of Capitol Hill’s sweetest and most widely available perks–travel to golf resorts underwritten by private pleaders–has become a rarely sampled treat.

On Monday, June 5, my former colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity will be releasing a massive study and database on congressional trips–both for members and staff–underwritten by third parties; that will provide some empirical evidence against which to measure the relative self-denial in Washington. And for my part, I am so inundated with invitations sent by lobbyists and congressional campaign committees to lobbyists and PAC leaders to attend Washington fundraisers–often at the offices of Washington lobbyists (some of which feature their own in house executive chefs)–that I haven’t been able to keep up with them all. I’ll be posting this week’s invitations as one giant PDF later this afternoon. There’s no baseline for comparison, but I’ll ask around to see if the perception is that there are fewer in the summer of 2006 than there have been in the past.

I think Birnbaum’s most interesting observation comes in his conclusion:

…if groups devoted to reining in Washington’s money culture really wanted to make headway, perhaps they would be wise to focus not only on pushing elected officials to change the system but also on ginning up investigations that might put lawmakers and their donors in jail and perhaps would force the courts to clarify their cloudy definitions of bribery. Money will always have a say in politics. But nowadays, its voice is deafening. Maybe the work of diligent prosecutors will soon allow average voters to be heard more often as well.

Whether such “ginned up” investigations result in jail time for politicians or their donors is besides the point. (And, one observation: Given that some of the legislative battles in Washington that have generated the biggest hauls in campaign cash have pitted one well-heeled interest against another–that is, cable, broadcast, local and long distance phone companies in telecom legislation, or banks, brokerage firms and insurance companies in the Glass Steagall rewrite–we might end up seeing deep pocketed corporate titans, who would have far more resources than public interest non-profits, using the same means to send their adversaries to the big house.) What is clearly needed is a more active and engaged citizenry that holds its public officials accountable, more transparency in the legislative process, and more easily accessible information about the whole process. Investigations that expose the activities of lawmakers to constituents, combined with the ballot, should be sufficient to keep Congress honest.

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