How to ramrod an American congressman

by Cesar Chelala

A widespread perception that members of the U.S. Congress respond increasingly to special interests has received additional support from a person who knows something about it.

In a cynical interview with Lesley Stahl of the television news magazine “60 minutes,” Jack Abramoff, one of the more notorious lobbyists in recent times, explains the tactics he used in dealing with people in Congress. In addition, he gives a chilling assessment of recent reforms intended to change the situation.

In 2011, it was estimated that there were more than 13,000 registered federal lobbyists based in Washington, D.C. They spend huge amounts of money on their work, up to $3.5 billion in 2010 according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Their competence as individuals, groups or corporations to lobby the government is protected by the right-to-petition clause in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

For his illegal activities in 2006, Abramoff pleaded guilty to defrauding Indian tribes of tens of millions of dollars on issues associated with Indian gaming, and corruption of public officials, in a Washington, D.C., federal court. He served most of a six-year sentence after pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy, honest services fraud and tax evasion.

Abramoff was deft at influencing legislation as a lobbyist. One of his strategies was to get some Indian tribes to make substantial campaign contributions to select members of Congress.

In addition, Abramoff spent large sums of money providing congressmen with free flights to the world’s best golf destinations, such as St. Andrews in Scotland. He provided them with free meals at his upscale Washington restaurant Signatures, and the best tickets to all of the area’s sporting events. He said he spent a million dollars a year on those tickets and on different other venues.

When asked by Stahl if he could state how much it costs to corrupt a congressman, he answered, “I was actually thinking of writing a book — ‘The Idiot’s Guide to Buying a Congressman’ — as a way to put this all down.

According to Abramoff, the best way to get a congressional office to be responsive to his demands was to offer a staffer a job that could triple his salary saying, “You know, when you are done working on the Hill, we’d very much like you to consider coming to work for us.”

At that moment, said Abramoff, we owned them. They were going to do everything that he requested.

Neil Volz, one of the staffers Abramoff was referring to, said on that program: “Jack Abramoff could sweet-talk a dog off a meat truck. That’s how persuasive he was.”

It is not a memory that Abramoff now feels proud of. “Look. I did things and I was involved in the system I should not have been in. I’m ashamed of the fact that I was there, and that’s the reason why I am speaking about it now. I am trying to do something, to compensate.”

After these events, Congress passed what many consider the most sweeping new ethics rules since Watergate. Although the bill regulating lobbyists’ activities incorporated the Lobbying Transparency Act of 2006, some senators and a coalition of good-government groups stated that the bill was too weak. It is an opinion that Abramoff would certainly agree with.

Abramoff doesn’t believe in the least that these reforms are going to be effective. As he stated: “These faux-reform efforts … tweak the system. They’ll say, ‘You can have a meal with a congressman if they are standing up, not sitting down”.

For Abramoff, the system has not been cleaned up at all. “The people who are actually in the system are the people who are making reforms.”

That is why he says the most important measure to be taken is to prohibit members of Congress and their staff from becoming lobbyists in Washington. According to the online disclosure site LegiStorm, 5,400 former congressional staffers and almost 400 former lawmakers have become lobbyists over the past decade.

When considering how to limit the power of lobbyists, former congressman Lee Hamilton, director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, wrote: “I’d even go further. I favor the radical steps of prohibiting members of Congress from accepting contributions from firms that lobby them, and banning lobbyists from contributing to members they lobby.”

In addition, Hamilton believes that Congress needs an institution, similar to the Congressional Budget Office, to give it “unbiased and unvarnished analysis of pending issues each week.”

The last word belongs to 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 is a dangerous place. Don’t hang around.”

Cesar Chelala, M.D., is a cowinner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.