US: Lobbying Scandal

Corruption at the Heart of Corporate Politics

"Casino Jack" Abramoff was a legislative hit man. When a corporation needed a bill killed in Congress, they hired him.

He got the job done, even for the most sordid of clients, including sweatshop owners. From 1995 to 2002, Abramoff was paid $9 million for successfully lobbying to exclude the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. protectorate, from minimum-wage laws, allowing manufacturers to tag their products "Made in the U.S.A." while paying their workers $3.05 an hour.

Then in January, the super-lobbyist pled guilty to defrauding nine Native American tribes of $80 million and conspiring to bribe public officials. Now Abramoff is at the center of a government investigation that could implicate dozens of lawmakers and other officials in a massive web of corruption.

"When this is all over, this will be bigger than any [government scandal] in the last 50 years, both in the amount of people involved and the breadth to it," said Stan Brand, a former House counsel who specializes in representing public officials accused of wrongdoing. "It will include high ranking members of Congress and executive branch officials." (Bloomberg News, 1/3/06)

Far from being a case of one bad apple, this scandal has shed a spotlight on the corrupt relations between corporations, their hired lobbyists, and elected representatives in the U.S. government. The Abramoff affair will dramatically reinforce ordinary Americans’ growing distrust of the two corporate-financed parties who hold absolute control over Washington.

Politicians for Sale

For more than a decade, Abramoff was building an "empire of influence" throughout Washington D.C. He had direct access to top Republican leaders such as the embattled former Republican Majority leader, Tom "The Hammer" DeLay, whose former chief of staff, Tony Rudy, has been implicated as a co-conspirator in Abramoff’s guilty plea.

His ties even extended right into the White House via Karl Rove, whose assistant, Susan Ralston, was Abramoff’s former secretary. When Tyco got into hot water for tax evasion in 2002, they contacted Jack Abramoff, reportedly because of his known White House connections.

At least one lawmaker, Republican representative Bob Ney, has been implicated in bribery. But facts revealed about Abramoff’s ties and activities suggest it’s likely that many more politicians doled out favors on the basis of bribes.

Abramoff ran a fake charity called the U.S. Family Network that he used to channel money from clients to officials. He hosted lawmakers at his restaurant Signatures, wined and dined them in his skybox at Redskins games, and even took some on luxury golfing trips to Scotland.

Nicknamed "Casino Jack" for representing a handful of Native American tribes with casino and gambling interests, Abramoff convinced them to pay exorbitant fees, ten to 20 times above average.

In one scam, Abramoff waged a successful campaign to shut down a gambling casino owned by the Tigua tribe in Texas. Afterwards, he turned right around and convinced the Tiguas that he could get their casino reopened if they hired him at a hefty price!

Nine tribes were ripped off for more than $82 million by Abramoff and his partner, Michael Scanlon – a former Tom DeLay staffer. In the process, millions of dollars were channeled to 195 Republicans and 88 Democrats.

As part of this scam, Abramoff cultivated ties with powerful leaders of the Christian Right – avowed opponents of gambling. In 2001 Abramoff paid Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, millions of dollars he raised from the Native American casino owners to mobilize religious conservatives as a battering ram against legislation that threatened the profits of Abramoff’s Native American clients. The Louisiana bill would have eased restrictions on casino boat gambling, creating more competition, and therefore threatening the profits of the tribe Abramoff represented.

Recently released e-mails show that Reed knew some of the money was coming from the casino-owning tribes. This campaign also included prominent Religious Right leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell.

This scandalous arrangement speaks volumes about the so-called moral agenda of the leaders of the Religious Right – while they "talk Jesus," in practice they "walk corporate" as Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas? , put it.

The K Street Project

Abramoff’s activities were mutually beneficial to himself, his corporate clients, and the Republican Party, who were assured millions of dollars in campaign donations. The seeds of this particular alliance were planted after the Republicans captured the House majority in 1994.

Aiming to keep the Republicans in the saddle, Tom DeLay and the influential, ultra-conservative Grover Norquist launched a program they called the "K Street Project" – a plan to stack lobbying firms with loyal Republicans.

The watchdog group Public Citizen described how the K Street Project worked: "In this partnership, corporations, trade associations, and lobbying firms are pressured to hire only Republicans… Those lobbyists then help the Republican leadership to ’whip on the outside’ – to get Republican members of the House to vote for the leadership’s legislative agenda. The lobbyists also raise enormous sums of money from their clients to ensure that Republicans remain the majority in Congress. For this fealty, the leadership grants the lobbyists access to the decision-makers and provides legislative favors for their clients."

While it was clear that Abramoff was flagrantly abusing the political process, buying off politicians is nothing new to Washington. What Abramoff did was take the normally corrupt system of U.S. politics to new lows.

Reforms and the Democrats

The outbreak of this scandal, and Abramoff’s agreement to name conspiring lawmakers, has caused panic in Washington. Lawmakers are making a mad dash to return any money that could be connected to Abramoff. House and Senate leaders from both parties, compelled by public outrage, are now calling for some limited lobbying reforms.

Legislation to close old loopholes merely opens a whole array of new loopholes to be exploited, as was shown in the aftermath of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform. There have been many attempts at lobbying regulation and campaign finance reform, all of which have hardly blunted the power of corporations over the government.

The truth is that we can’t expect much from either of the two parties, because both parties depend on financing from big business. This helps explain why over the past five years there have been fewer than a dozen investigations by Congressional committees into the activities of corporate lobbyists.

An anonymous congressman told Newsweek that the Republican and Democrat leaders, in fact, called a "ceasefire" on such investigations. He said, "If they were going to investigate us, we were going to investigate them." (1/16/06)

This scandal is not the result of a few bad apples. Rather, it is the direct outgrowth of a political system based on an enormous and ever-growing gap between the corporations and the super rich on the one hand, and working people and the poor on the other hand.

While living standards for workers have fallen or stagnated over the last period, corporations have been bankrolling record levels of growth in the lobbying industry. h An astounding $2 billion was spent on lobbying in 2004! The number of corporate lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled in the last five years, to 37,000. In other words, there are about 70 lobbyists for every elected Congressional representative!

This army of corporate influence peddlers has become an enormous pressure on U.S. politics, and will continue buying off the two parties for Corporate America at the expense of workers and the poor across the planet.

While the Democratic Party will try to exploit this scandal for their electoral advantage this fall, they are just as much a part of this system of corporate money and lobbyists. In 2004, John Kerry and the Democrats raised almost $2 billion, which of course came overwhelmingly from the rich. In fact, the Senator who has received more money from lobbyists than anyone else over the past 15 years is – John Kerry.

The key to beating back corruption and corporate control of government is to build a political party that genuinely represents the millions of ordinary people, not the millionaires – a party of working people, youth, and the oppressed that fights against big business and the rich.

For a new party to be fundamentally different from the two big business parties it would need to be democratically organized and run, so that its elected officials are held accountable to the members of the party. As a vital check on corruption and careerism all elected officials should be paid only the average wage of the workers they represent. As a party for working people it could not accept any money from the big corporations.

Big business has two parties-why shouldn’t we have one of our own? It’s high time we swept away this rotten system of corruption and corporate power. Join us!

This article appeared in the Feb-March issue of Justice, newspaper of Socialist Alternative in the US

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