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Mr. Abramoff went to Washington

For those of you that have enjoyed your Festive break and have not been keeping up with political happenings ‘over the pond’, there has been an eye-opening little scandal going on in Washington.

A member of the Most Honourable Order of Washington Lobbyists, Jack Abramoff, has pleaded guilty to the heinous crimes of fraud, bribery and tax evasion. In a plea bargain deal, Abramoff will face nine to eleven years of penal servitude in exchange testifying against the sundry Congresscritters that may face prosecution.

Clearly, Mr. Abramoff is a menace to society:

Among the allegations in the court documents is that Abramoff arranged for payments totaling $50,000 for the wife of an unnamed congressional staffer in return for the staffer’s help in killing an Internet gambling measure. The Washington Post has previously reported that Tony Rudy, a former top aide to DeLay, worked with Abramoff to kill such a bill in 2000 before going to work for Abramoff.

An internet gambling measure? Not surprisingly, it turns out that Mr. Abramoff was getting a large part of his money from Native American tribes who have a large stake in gambling operations in the United States outside of Las Vegus.

Abramoff’s appearance in U.S. District Court came nearly two years after his lobbying practices gained public notice because of the enormous payments — eventually tallied at $82 million — that he and a public relations partner received from casino-rich Indian tribes. Yesterday, he admitted defrauding four of those tribal clients out of millions of dollars.

As you can imagine, that part of the Washington elite that has emerged from their Holiday cheer is agog with the news. Wonkette, for example, took time out from promoting her book to pass comment on the latest news, which is that Republican politicians are falling over themselves to ‘return’ money that Abramoff donated to them. Starting at the top, President Bush is returning the $6,000 that he donated to his re-election campaign. Abramoff was a generous soul; 24 figures from both political parties in Washington have announced that they are following the President’s lead. Oddly enough, a leading Democrat Senator, Harry Reid, is declining to return his $47,000 booty, saying that it is basically a Republican problem.

I was bemused that there was no follow-up from the media on that point. It would seem that it is okay for Democrats to take money from a crook, but not Republicans. It must be that ‘liberal media’ that they talk about over there. As a non-American citizen, I must confess to being bemused at the fuss; in a political system where cash is vital to electoral success, where do people think that the money comes from?

But American political analysts, such as The Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen, seem to me to miss the point. He wrote about the lobbying system in Washington and its biggest critic in the Washington system, John McCain:

Back to McCain. For years now, he has been fulminating against the system — the outsized role and influence of lobbyists and the parochialism of senators and representatives who, like the ridiculous Ted Stevens of Alaska, have turned selfishness into a matter of high principle. But more important, McCain has tried to rein in campaign spending, which is a root of the problem. The sad fact is that the average member of Congress has his hat out for campaign funds most of the time. Lobbyists know that. They go see a member and in a heartbeat they are hit up for a donation.

…So much needs to be done: campaign finance reform, an ethics committee with teeth, the insistence that lobbyists report whom precisely they are lobbying — the name, please, not merely this entity called “the House of Representatives.” But what’s needed most of all is indignation on the part of the public, a cold fury about being ripped off and taken for granted.

Closer to the point was that old friend of Samizdata.net, Boris Johnson. Writing in this morning’s Daily Telegraph, Johnson thinks that Abramoff’s lobbying clients, the Native American tribes looking to protect their gaming interests are the real victims.

It was a classic piece of lobbyist’s hocus-pocus. The Native Americans needed him to represent their gambling interests, and Mr Abramoff was happy to oblige. In fact, he became known as “Casino Jack” for his skill in persuading Native Americans that he was indispensable to their cause, and prising millions from their reservations…

The point is that he was not only suborning the politicians; he was deceiving the business interests he represented.

Businessmen long for certainty; they long to know what the decision-makers are thinking, so that they can plan ahead. They yearn to be in the loop, to have the drop on things. It is the genius of the lobbyists and the consultants to understand this need, and to satisfy it in the most imaginative way.

The reality is that government decisions are often taken in a way that is shambolically unpredictable, but the lobbyist pretends otherwise. He whispers that he can get his client an introduction to so-and-so. He produces organograms of power. He rustles up members of the governing party, or civil servants, or journalists, and persuades them to come to watch the football or the rugby. And nine times out of 10, since this is England, the freebie-takers will do absolutely nothing to requite the favour they have received; but the lobbyist knows that doesn’t really matter. The client sees the beaming, drunken faces of these important folk; the client is satisfied, and the client believes just about anything the lobbyist tells him.

Johnson hints, but does not explain the full nature of the problem.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with lobbying or being a lobbyist. When the state takes it upon itself to regulate and interfere with people’s lives and business, it is natural that people and business would like to have an input on the political process that has the potential to ruin or enrich them, depending on the fickle finger of legislative whims. An honourable lobbyist would use intellectual argument to present the case for their client without unseemly corrupt practices. However, it is tempting for the not so honourable to use the shortcut of cash.

Well meaning statists, like Senator McCain, think that campaign finance reform will have an impact on reducing the temptation for politicians to take bribes. I would suggest that an honest politician is always honest. He misses the point that rampant lobbyist-driven corruption is a sure sign of excessive legislative involvement in business life. Businessmen do not give money to lobbyists because they have too much of it, and your average Washington lobbyist is just a smashing fellow, but because they think lobbyists can change legislative outcomes.

Legislatures that do not have the power to distort market outcomes are not plagued with lobbyists. How many gambling industry lobbyists are infesting Philadelphia’s City Council? Mr. Abramoff just a symptom of the disease known as ‘the state’.

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