Business as Usual

Regulating campaign finance will stem neither political corruption nor insider influence.


Two stories about the oldest political outrages–money, influence, and the use of public resources for private gain–appeared in Wednesday's papers.

The New York Times put a profile of D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff on its front page. Abramoff is a $500-per-hour man who appears to be effective in convincing the House of the merits of his views, which happen to coincide with the policy interests of his clients: Southern Indian tribes and, until recently, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. It's always nice when people slip up and tell the truth. "I call Jack Abramoff, and I get results," William Worfel, vice chairman of the Coushatta Indians, an 800-member tribe that paid Abramoff $1.76 million in last half of 2001, told the Times. "You get everything you pay for." (This recalls Clinton donor Johnny Chung, who likened the White House to a subway. Said Chung, "You have to put in coins to open the gates.") What Worfel thinks he purchased was a decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs preventing another tribe from building a casino that would have competed with the Grand Casino Coushatta.

The other outrage is unfolding in Illinois, where Federal prosecutors have indicted two former aides of Republican Gov. George Ryan and his campaign committee. The alleged crimes include selling driver's licenses for campaign contributions, using government employees to campaign, and failing to report vacations and time spent with prostitutes underwritten by a government contractor. (The alleged wrongdoing occurred while Ryan, who's not indicted, was serving as secretary of state.)

Good thing George W. Bush signed the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 into law. Or not. These two cases–one of alleged illegality, the other of perfectly legal influence peddling–show the limits of attacking soft-money and campaign contributions as the root of political evil.

The Illinois case, if proven true, is a slam dunk case of corruption. Favors financed by public resources were exchanged for campaign contributions. Such activity is illegal everywhere, and rightfully so. It's the stuff of local politics, but it rarely rises to the national level, where too many people are paying attention.

Abramoff's lucrative career appears more troubling. To pay big money for access to influential policy makers strikes one as unfair–or at least that's my gut reaction to it. It's what Sen. John McCain is referring to when he describes the system as inherently corrupt and unavoidably tainting those who work in Washington politics. But the process that's enriching Abramoff is only tangentially related to soft-money political giving. (Like many lobbyists, he's also a fundraiser.) McCain's dogged effort that resulted in shifting soft money from national to state political parties will not shut him down. Abramoff trades on the reservoirs of trust he's established with legislators over years of contact. "He walks in to see DeLay and DeLay knows he's representing clients whose views are in sync with DeLay's views," his longtime friend and fellow operative Grover Norquist tells the Times.

Abramoff claims he only represents clients who share his conservative views. But even if he were a non-ideological mercenary, his profession's influence is clearly out of reach of laws that regulate political spending. Congress can't outlaw friendship. It can't prevent those who spend years on the Hill developing policy expertise and political skills from putting them to use for personal gain when it comes time to make some real money, buy a McMansion in semi-rural Virginia, and put the kids through college. Individuals and industries need to communicate with those who make the rules under which they operate. The value of specialization holds no less in political engineering than in aerospace design or relief pitching, and such communication is often most effectively and efficiently achieved through professional intermediaries. That someone can garner $500 an hour from Indian tribes to work Washington simply reflects the economic stakes of the decisions made every day at the myriad craps tables in the nation's capital.

The real outrage in the Abramoff story is not that he's convinced someone to pay him $500 an hour. It's that the federal government is in the position to decide whether an Indian tribe can build a casino on its property–and that, in making the decision, it would even consider the opinions of the tribe's competitor's.