Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s book goes on sale today. His memoir will hopefully be a catalyst for Washington to have an honest conversation about money and accountability in politics. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that conversation has gotten off to the best start.
A few days ago, a headline on USA Today’s website screamed, “Ex-Lobbyist: Most in Congress accept bribes.” Quoted throughout the piece were excerpts from an interview Jack did with “60 Minutes.”
“I am talking about giving a gift to somebody who makes a decision on behalf of the public and at the end of the day that’s really what bribery is,” the former lobbyist said. “It’s done every day and it’s still being done … There were very few members … who didn’t at some level participate in that.”
His comments astounded me. “Is he really saying that there were very few congressmen not engaged in bribery?” I asked myself. I hoped that wasn’t the case. The idea that most members of Congress are taking bribes is ludicrous. Jack and I both know better.
For several years, I was a member of the Abramoff lobbying team, even longer if you count the time I helped Jack’s clients from my perch as Congressman Bob Ney’s (R-OH) chief of staff. My career as a lobbyist ended when Jack pleaded guilty to corrupting members of Congress and their staff, including Bob and I. In court that day, the Justice Department named me a target of their criminal investigation. It wouldn’t be long before I too was pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy.
If I had made different choices, I could have avoided the entire scandal. That is a simple fact. My decisions led to my mistakes, and consequently, my regret. Every other point or counterpoint is just a debate. It is an important debate, though, which is why I so vehemently disagree with Jack’s public comments that only a “few members” on Capitol Hill are not engaged in some sort of bribery.
In his book, Jack explains his views further. “Contributions from parties with an interest in legislation are really nothing but bribes,” he writes. He then goes on to say that “everyone does it” and “it’s the way the system works.”
Before I go further, please know that while Jack was in prison, I prayed on a regular basis for him and his family. And I continue to wish them contentment and peace. Nothing I say here is meant to be personal. In fact, I am glad to see that Jack has taken on the cause of reducing political corruption. But let’s be honest. Selling cynicism by dumbing down the definition of bribery to include anyone interacting with the government is not the way to create a healthier political system. If we want to reduce corruption in Washington, we should start by educating people about the process — the real process. The people can then reduce the influence of big money through the power of their votes. Think about it.
The concept of everyone in Washington being on-the-take is a dangerous narrative. It suggests that people like Jack and I were merely victims of our environment. Under that theory, we were just doing what everybody was doing, as if giving elected officials the gift of a free no-work, six-figure golf trip to Scotland is somehow the same as the Farm Bureau hosting an event on Capitol Hill or a community leader giving a congressman a free sweatshirt from his local university.
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.