This idea that “everyone was doing it” paints a picture that fails to take into consideration the fact that our elected representatives in Washington are both a cause and a person. In addition to being individual people, our elected representatives advance causes that are important to our local communities and nation. We put our hopes and dreams in their hands and ask them to navigate the varied interests of a diverse nation on our behalf. Despite the anger most of us have at the current dysfunction in Washington, elected members of Congress still hold a sacred position in our society. Because of that, the United States Constitution guarantees each of us the right to support or oppose the causes being championed by our elected leaders. We have a right to advance those causes with our time, our passion and, yes, our money.
For instance, when thousands of individual citizens donated money to members of Congress during the debate over health care reform in 2009, they did so to express support or opposition to a specific cause that impacted their lives. Some were lobbyists. Others were not. It was ugly. But it was a straightforward expression of democracy at work. If we are to accept Jack’s definition of bribery, then we might as well just take the next step and send the police to the voting booth to arrest anyone voting on behalf of their own interests.
This “everyone was doing it” concept also fails to address the fundamental difference between buying access and buying results. Buying results is a crime. In contrast, while it may look bad, and it is nearly impossible to get an elected official to admit it happens, buying access is a foundational part of our free enterprise campaign system. If a group of citizens are not getting a good answer from their local member of Congress on an issue, our system says they are free to pool their resources and purchase a meeting or two with elected officials who might be more receptive to their cause. That isn’t to say there aren’t problems. There are plenty.
The problems that got Jack and I in trouble involved long-term, corrupt relationships — not the simple purchase of some face time to talk about an issue or a campaign contribution for a helpful elected official. In the case of Jack, Bob and I, buying results meant establishing a years-long corrupt relationship where we all agreed to a de facto bribery scheme, in which free trips, meals and a better lifestyle were exchanged for public actions. I am deeply ashamed of my role in that conspiracy. That said, I do not want to compound those mistakes by comparing what we did to the everyday process of buying political access and spending money to advance important causes.
It might make me feel better to say all relationships between lobbyists, members of Congress and their staff developed the way mine did with Jack and Bob, but that isn’t the case. At their core, our crimes revolved around the issue of honesty. In that way, it was as much an issue of personal accountability as it was government corruption. All three of us lied to our colleagues before we lied to our country. Earning back any semblance of public trust means being honest about what happened.
In my case, I would share that I believe it was in part my cynicism about government that made it easier to convince myself that I could break the law. “If everyone else was being greedy and willing to look past the rules, then why not follow suit?” I would ask. The problem was everyone wasn’t doing what I was doing. It was like my cynicism was a gateway drug to my corruption. And I don’t want to see that cycle play out in someone else’s life.
All of us who follow politics know that there are millions of young people in this country who want to make the world a better place. Their energy fuels many of the campaigns reported on by the media. We all can relate to what they are doing and know that our future is in their hands. For them, I hope that any Abramoff-inspired conversations about ethics and corruption in government can stick to the facts, and not feed the cynicism they already see too much of in our public debate.
Neil Volz is an author and former lobbyist. His upcoming book, Into the Sun, will be available in December.