January 6, 2006
Abramoff Is Not the Problem
No, the scandal did
not spring full-blown from the head of Jack Abramoff. It was also
the product of a pairing: The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act meets
the K Street Project.
That said, we retain
full confidence in lobbyist Abramoff's creative talent. He could
cook up a dozen larcenies alone in a jail cell, and probably will.
But the casino law, merged with the Republican takeover of the
Washington lobbying industry, was a gift from Zeus.
to follow this scandal will have trouble distinguishing legal
behavior from the illegal kind. And that's the point. The Republican
leadership's success in mating their fortunes with those of private
interests (while confusing the public) is the basic problem.
Congress passed the
Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988 to reduce the conflicts between
states and tribes over gambling on Indian lands. It was supposed
to leave nearly all regulation in the hands of the states, but
that's not how it worked out. The law opened the door for tribes
to sue states in federal court. And it gave Washington a big role
in granting the tribes the right to open Vegas-style casinos --
basically, a license to print money.
The K Street Project
was a Republican plan to get the lobbyists to work for the party,
especially its more influential members. (Lobbying firms congregate
around K Street.) The message to business was elegantly simple:
If you want to get anything done in Washington, you have to hire
Republican loyalists and fill GOP campaign coffers. Sen. Rick
Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican, actually summoned lobbyists
to Capitol Hill and helped them pick people for the top jobs at
their trade associations. Many such jobs went to the former staff
members of then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and other
"Pay to play"
is not a nice kind of government, but the Republican leaders established
it in the open and without blushing. Indeed, the bravado enhanced
their desired image as invincible strongmen who could force anything
through Washington. The leaders also made clear that they were
unafraid to spend the taxpayers' money. Collaborate with the party,
they intimated, and we will keep you in diamonds and furs.
The Medicare prescription
drug benefit showcased the K Street Project in all its glory.
During the Clinton years, the pharmaceutical industry contributed
roughly equal amounts to Democrats and Republicans. By 2003, the
drug makers were giving 80 percent of their campaign cash to Republicans
-- as the K Street Project planned.
Rep. Billy Tauzin,
a Louisiana Republican, guided the writing of the Medicare drug
bill. It forbade the government to negotiate drug prices, per
the industry's request. And it cut private insurers into the deal
by giving them the job of running the program.
One month after President
Bush signed the bill, Tauzin left Congress and went to work for
the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association of America,
where he now makes an estimated $2 million a year. Thomas Scully,
Bush's point man on the bill, had beaten him through the revolving
door. Scully had already joined a law firm and registered as a
lobbyist for the drug companies.
All this happened
to be legal, which makes you wonder why a Republican insider like
Abramoff felt he had to commit fraud to make big money in Washington.
He may have enjoyed cheating. But, in any case, government ethics
have been so distorted that it's hard to tell the perverted legal
activities from the obscene criminal ones. And if you have prominent
friends like Tom DeLay, you can get away with it -- at least for
a long time.
As noted, the Indian
Gaming Regulatory Act left the federal government holding certain
keys to the casino. The tribes figured: The Republicans run Washington,
and Jack Abramoff runs the Republicans, so it makes sense to fork
over millions to the supreme lobbyist.
Given the daily orgy
of legal K Street payoffs, the unlawful pocketing of some tribal
loot by Abramoff and friends shouldn't seem so shocking. It's
like getting nabbed for necking in a brothel.
The president, DeLay
and others are now unloading their Abramoff money, while denouncing
him before the TV cameras. The problem, remember, is not Abramoff.
He's just a clever crook. The problem is a political culture that
denounces the players who get caught but not the game.
2005 Creators Syndicate