It all began in 2000 when the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians, grown rich
on the operations of casinos on their tribal land, decided they needed some allies
in Washington to help protect their wealth from competitors. Not unreasonably,
they chose to retain the services of Jack Abramoff, the king of Washington lobbyists.
What happened next has become an American morality tale of our times.
Over the next two years, the Choctaws paid Mr Abramoff and his colleague Michael
Scanlon some $15m (£8.3m). Alas, the esteem was not reciprocated. In a series
of e-mails, the pair referred to the Choctaws and other Indian tribal clients
as, among other things, "troglodytes" and "monkeys". Of that
$15m, it is alleged, Mr Abramoff and Mr Scanlon channeled off up to $7m.
Some of the money went to pay off a debt from Abramoff's days as a B-movie
producer in Hollywood. Some went to finance a golfing trip to St Andrews for
Tom DeLay, his most influential friend in Congress. Some, it seems, went for
the lobbyists' own enrichment, under a system referred to in the e-mails as
"Gimme Five". Over the past 12 months, the saga that has unfolded
in a series of hearings by the Senate Indian Affairs committee, has transfixed
Washington. "Simply and sadly, it is a tale of betrayal," says John
McCain, the panel's chairman, distinguished only by the lobbyists' "insatiable
greed" and their "utter contempt" for their clients.
Lobbying is Washington's grubby secret. In the city of ceremony and empire,
peace and war, it is the unspoken business of the shadows. Some say lobbying
is part of the democratic process. Others claim it is legalized bribery, even
downright corruption. But love it or loathe it, it is the way Washington works.
Usually you hear little about the cajolings and threats, the quiet meetings,
the lavish lunches and junkets that lubricate American politics. But every once
in a while something comes along to open the system to the thing it hates most:
daylight. The case of Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon and a clutch of Indian
tribes which paid them $82m is one of those somethings.
Mr Abramoff claims he was doing nothing illegal, that the Indians got value
for money and his only sin was to have been too good at his job. But now his
career, indeed his liberty, are under threat, as the FBI investigates allegations
of massive fraud. The affair has cast a dark cloud over Mr DeLay, the former
pesticide salesman from Texas who is now House majority leader, known on Capitol
Hill as "The Hammer". Some even believe the scandal could mark the
beginning of the end of this era of Republican dominance.
Lobbying per se is nothing new. The right to "petition the government
for a redress of grievances" is enshrined in the first amendment of the
Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech. As long ago as 1913, Woodrow
Wilson was complaining that Washington was "swarming with lobbyists ...
you can't throw a brick in any direction without hitting one."
But the 28th president cannot have imagined how access-peddling would blossom
into a $4bn industry. There are 14,000 registered lobbyists, and at least as
many again who are not registered. The money pours in not just from the US but
around the world. Between 1998 and 2004, foreign companies spent $620m (£350m)
bending ears in Washington.
Lobbying thrives in the US for two reasons, which a comparison with Britain
illustrates. Britain has a parliamentary system, where the prime minister controls
the legislative agenda and where party discipline ensures it becomes law. Basically,
if you want to tilt the playing field, you must get to ministers, best of all
the prime minister. But unless you are Rupert Murdoch, that can be tricky.
Forget about the average backbencher. British sleaze has an engaging directness;
take the brown envelopes bestowed by Mohammed Fayed on Neil Hamilton in the
"cash for questions" case. But the sums involved would not cover the
daily expense account of a Jack Abramoff.
Congress is the legislative branch of the constitution. It writes laws and
appropriates money for government spending. Most important, it is separate from
the executive branch headed by the White House.
Although George Bush's Republican party has majorities in the House and Senate,
he has no direct control of the Bills they consider. For a lobbyist this is
heaven, a sky studded with dozens of powerful committee chairmen and ranking
members, all with their fiefdoms, whose yea or nay is decisive.
The other key ingredient is money, the colossal sums needed to fight election
campaigns. In Britain, the curbs on such spending are strict. In America, by
contrast, the sky's the limit. Total spending for the 2004 elections, presidential
and Congressional, reached $4bn.
The summit of extravagance was the 2004 race in South Dakota, one of the least
populous US states, in which Republican challenger Jim Thune defeated the Democratic
Senate minority leader Tom Daschle. The combined cost was a staggering $40m,
and this money was not raised by each of the 391,000 good citizens who voted,
chipping in $100 for the privilege.
In a larger state, the average cost of defending a Senate seat is $20m. This
means an incumbent has to raise $9,000 every day of his six-year term. There
is only one place to get that kind of money. And so the merry-go-round starts
The basic trade-off is simple. Corporate and other donors (among them Indian
tribes) provide money in a bid to secure the legislation they want, with desired
exemptions, loopholes and financial breaks. The intermediaries between the two
sides – legislators in constant need of election campaign funds and business
interests trying to influence them – are the lobbyists. And the more people
a lobbyist knows on Capitol Hill, the more effective he or she is.
Unsurprisingly, ever increasing numbers of them are former legislators. The
revolving door is nothing new, but today it spins faster than ever. Congressmen
and their aides become lobbyists, cashing in their contacts for seven-figure
The executive branch too joins in the fun. Take Philip Cooney, the White House
official who went to Exxon, days after it was revealed he had been doctoring
climate-change reports to diminish the role of fossil fuels in global warming.
The Washington-based pressure group Center for Public Integrity, says almost
250 former Congressmen and senior government officials are now active lobbyists.
Attempts to cleanse the system of its addiction to money invariably fail. The
2002 Campaign Reform Act outlawed "soft money" (previously unlimited
contributions to the national parties for generic "party-building activities")
that in fact went to help specific candidates. This closed one source of money.
But the ever-escalating cost of campaigns meant other sources had to be found.
Enter the lobbyists.
Jack Abramoff and his ilk are key figures in Washington's power networks that
embrace the politicians on Capitol Hill, lobbyists and non-profit interest groups
and organizations. And no network was mightier than the one embracing Mr Abramoff,
Mr DeLay and Grover Norquist, president of the Americans for Tax Reform interest
Mr Abramoff's special good fortune was to be in the right place at the right
time. No lobbyist was a better friend of Mr DeLay and Newt Gingrich when the
Republican landslide in the 1994 mid-term elections turned these two conservative
firebrands from minority mischief-makers into the new masters of Congress.
Suddenly, Mr Abramoff was the man who could open the doors that mattered on
Capitol Hill. The money that poured in from clients enabled him to fix anything,
from private luxury box-seats at Washington Redskins games to golfing trips
for his Congressional pals. Lobbyists are barred by law from paying for such
junkets. But that could be got round by having the non-profit group pick up
the bill (tax-deductible of course).
Fred Wertheimer, chairman of the Democracy 21 organization has been toiling
half a lifetime to reduce the role of money in US politics. "DeLay has
made it an art form. You have to 'pay to play', you have to provide campaign
finance for his party if you want to have any influence." So how corrupt
is the system? Mr Wertheimer says: "It's corrupt with a small 'c'. As a
rule, you're not talking about classic quid pro quo bribery corruption. Politicians
aren't getting personally rich out of it, unlike other countries where money
used to buy influence goes to the personal benefit of the office-holder."
After the 1994 victory, Mr DeLay set up a project aimed at consolidating Republican
power. It too boils down to a deal. Lobbyists and trade and industry associations
would be allowed virtually to write legislation. In return, the lobbying firms
would hire Republicans.
The result has been a semi-purge of former Democrat lawmakers-turned-lobbyists.
Today's lobbyists pour their clients' money into Republican ideological projects,
and use their contacts to round up more funds for Republican candidates. As
successive elections strengthened the Republican grip on Congress, the system
has become steadily more entrenched.
Possibly, the Indian tribe's scandal will change matters. In their hubris,
the Republicans may have overreached. Public approval of Congress, at just 33
per cent one recent poll shows, has never been lower.
Maybe Mr DeLay, at the Center of other ethics inquiries, will be forced to
step down as majority leader. But do not bet on it. Jack Abramoff may end up
as the scapegoat, thrown to the wolves to persuade ordinary Americans that the
system is able to police itself, while the realities remain. Washington plays
by the rules it knows, however disagreeable they may be. As a chastened Mr Abramoff
told The New York Times: "Eventually in politics, money wins."