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It’s simply the currently most visible excrescence of a truly national scandal: the fearful dominati

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by Hendrik Hertzberg
Issue of 2006-01-16
Posted 2006-01-09

If present trends continue, and if ordinary Americans follow the inspiring example set last week by their elected leaders, 2006 should be a record year for charitable giving. President Bush himself led the way with a six-thousand-dollar donation to the American Heart Association. Capitol Hill Republicans rushed to join the philanthropic parade. Democrats got caught up in the spirit, too, though it must be said that their donations were not nearly as numerous or, on the whole, as generous as those of their colleagues across the aisle. And, almost without exception, the gifts have gone to charities located in the states or districts represented by the givers, where they can do some good for somebody besides the recipients. Still, what an outpouring! In just four days, according to figures collected by the Associated Press, sixty-five members of the 109th Congress contributed some four hundred and fourteen thousand dollars for the relief of the less fortunate. Were they to keep up the pace for the remaining fifty-one weeks of 2006, their collective charitable giving would add up to about twenty-one million dollars—enough to make up for more than four years’ worth of the cuts their latest budget made to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

But of course they won’t keep up the pace. The charitable outgo corresponds, dollar for dollar, to the political income from campaign contributions received from or arranged by Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist, who, at the beginning of the week, pleaded guilty to five federal felonies, including fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials. How many decades Abramoff spends in jail will depend on how comprehensively he tells the Justice Department’s prosecutors about the details of his “lobbying,” particularly with respect to the public officials he conspired to bribe—some of whom, it may be assumed, were among last week’s Ladies Bountiful. Not empathy but embarrassment (coupled, in some cases, with outright fear) was the motive behind the munificence.

The Abramoff affair, according to the Washington Post, is potentially “the biggest congressional corruption scandal in generations.” But what kind of corruption scandal? Abramoff, Bush told Fox News, “was an equal money dispenser.” The scandal, numerous commentators have assured us, is “bipartisan.” Was he? Is it? Well, that depends on your definitions, and your measurements.

If a scandal is defined as something exceptional—as an unusually egregious display of political squalor that sooner or later involves prosecutors and indictments—then this one is as Republican as privatized Social Security. By the charitable giveback standard, it’s either eighty per cent Republican and twenty per cent “bipartisan” (i.e., Democratic) or 83–17, as measured by, respectively, the party affiliations of the givers-back and the aggregate amounts they let go of. By the standard of straight (apparently legal) campaign contributions, the scandal is sixty-four per cent Republican: of the $5.3 million Abramoff funnelled to candidates and PACs through clients and associates from 1999 through 2004, “only” $1.9 million went to Democrats. But Abramoff, who is forty-six, has been a Republican operative since his college days. Every dollar of his personal political giving—two hundred thousand dollars since 2000—has gone to Republicans. He is a Bush-Cheney “Pioneer,” meaning he raised more than a hundred grand for the ticket. The shinier baubles—skybox fund-raisers, jobs for wives, lavish golfing trips, meals at Abramoff’s upscale restaurant—went almost exclusively to Republicans, especially those in the circle of Tom DeLay, the suspended House Majority Leader. And of those fingered in the Abramoff indictments as being involved in unlawful activities, from Abramoff himself to “Representative #1” and “Staffer B,” one hundred per cent are Republicans.

Abramoff was the apotheosis of the “K Street Project,” a highly successful, years-long effort to turn the capital’s “lobbying community” into a Republican auxiliary, by pressuring lobbying firms and trade associations to support a broad conservative agenda, hire only Republicans, and give money overwhelmingly to Republican politicians. In some ways, the K Street Project is a national, and grander, version of the big-city political machines of old. But those machines, corrupt though they were, had their Robin Hood aspects. The pols got the graft and the diamond-stickpin boys got the contracts, but the poor got turkeys, jobs, and, sometimes, genuinely useful public programs. The K Street Project is strictly Sheriff of Nottingham. K Street, by its nature, promotes the interests of the rich, especially the well-organized corporate rich: they’re the only ones who can afford its services. The lobbyists’ alliance with the dominant wing of the Republican Party is a near-perfect match. The reigning conservative ideologues in the White House and on Capitol Hill believe, with apparent sincerity, that the path to economic and social progress for all is to reward—“incentivize”—the rich and to liberate private business from the wealth-destroying fetters of regulation. When these become the highest purposes of public policy, and when the ameliorative functions of government are held in contempt, then a single thread ties together upper-income tax cuts, the dismantling of environmental and safety protections, the shredding of the social safety net, the peopling of regulatory agencies with cronies hostile to their purposes, and, finally, outright corruption. If government is seen as a whore, why not treat her like one? All that remains is to fleece the johns and divide the take.

The attractions of a K Street job are actually more perilous to the souls of Democrats, who are supposed to be tribunes of “working families.” Still, many of them succumbed to its lure when their party was in power. (Some still do, in the unlikely event that they can get hired.) But hypocrisy tinges their prosperity with shame. No such guilt need trouble those whose ideology glorifies Moloch as a matter of course. And a legislator who identifies wealth with virtue, but is condemned, for the time being, to live on the salary of a public servant, may come to see the lobbyist’s skybox as his natural habitat.

The genius of the K Street Project goes beyond a ruthless willingness to use all the powers that come with control of every branch of government. K Street has also helped to cement the alliance between economic and social conservatives, who have different (and, in some cases, potentially incompatible) priorities. It is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that Grover Norquist, the little Lenin of the anti-tax movement, and Ralph Reed, the conservative Christianist operative turned candidate for lieutenant governor of Georgia, were among Jack Abramoff’s closest collaborators. Partly as a result, K Street cash subsidizes faith-based politics, and the abolition of the inheritance tax becomes a sacrament.

“The scandal is not what’s illegal. The scandal is what’s legal.” So goes Kinsley’s Law of Scandal, handed down many years ago by the iconoclastic writer Michael Kinsley. By this definition—probably the more pertinent one—the Abramoff affair is not just a Republican scandal, and not just a “bipartisan” one, either. It’s simply the currently most visible excrescence of a truly national scandal: the fearful domination of private money over the public interest. And it’s going to take something a lot more serious than the fall of Jack Abramoff—or an outbreak of bogus charity—to fix it.