Selling Washington

Tom DeLay
Tom DeLay; drawing by David Levine

1.

As the criminal investigation of the Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff was underway this spring, a spokesman for the law firm representing him issued a statement saying that Abramoff was “being singled out by the media for actions that are commonplace in Washington and are totally proper.” Abramoff has since said much the same thing. The lawyer was half right. Like many other lobbyists, Abramoff often arranged for private organizations, particularly nonprofit groups, to sponsor pleasant, even luxurious, trips for members of Congress, with lobbyists like himself tagging along and enjoying the unparalleled “access” that such a setting provides; i.e., they get to know congressmen and sell them on legislation. They take over skyboxes at sporting events, inviting members of Congress and their staffs.

But Abramoff has differed from other lobbyists in his flamboyance (he owned two Washington restaurants, at which he entertained), and in the egregiously high fees he charged clients, in particular, Indian tribes in the casino business. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee, headed by John McCain, found last year that Abramoff and an associate, Michael Scanlon, a political consultant and former communications director for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, received at least $66 million from six tribes over three years. Abramoff also instructed the tribes to make donations to certain members of Congress and conservative causes he was allied with. And he was careless—for example in putting on his credit card charges for DeLay’s golfing trip to the St. Andrews golf course in Scotland in 2000, with a stop in London for a bit of semi-serious business to make the trip seem legitimate. It’s illegal for a lobbyist to pay for congressional travel, but Abramoff is reported to have paid for three of DeLay’s trips abroad. A prominent Republican lobbyist told me that the difference between what Abramoff did and what many other lobbyists do was simply “a matter of degree and blatancy.”

Abramoff’s behavior is symptomatic of the unprecedented corruption—the intensified buying and selling of influence over legislation and federal policy—that has become endemic in Washington under a Republican Congress and White House. Corruption has always been present in Washington, but in recent years it has become more sophisticated, pervasive, and blatant than ever. A friend of mine who works closely with lobbyists says, “There are no restraints now; business groups and lobbyists are going crazy—they’re in every room on Capitol Hill writing the legislation. You can’t move on the Hill without giving money.”

This remark is only slightly exaggerated. For over ten years, but particularly since George W. Bush took office, powerful Republicans, among them Tom DeLay and Senator Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, have been carrying out what they call the “K Street Project,” an effort to place more Republicans and get rid of Democrats in the trade associations and major national lobbying organizations that have offices on K Street in downtown Washington (although, of course, some have…


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