Abramoff Plea Has Lawmakers Holding Breath, Constituents Holding Nose

Mylanta and Maalox are in short supply on Capitol Hill this week, following the announcement that Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist at the center of the biggest D.C. corruption investigation in decades, has made a deal with prosecutors.

In return for a reduction in the amount of time he will serve in prison, Abramoff has pleaded guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud, and tax evasion in connection with his work as one of D.C.’s most prominent Republican lobbyists.

Central to his agreement with prosecutors is Abramoff’s commitment to testify about the Members of Congress and Capitol Hill staffers whom he maintains he bribed with expensive trips, gifts and campaign donations in return for political and legislative favors. His testimony could implicate as many as a dozen lawmakers who have allegedly participated in Abramoff’s web of bribery, in which gifts, trips, free dinners and campaign donations were accepted in return for sweetheart deals for Abramoff and his clients.

It should be emphasized that any Members of Congress or Hill staffers who have been or will be named in this investigation should be presumed innocent until found guilty by a court of law. Regardless of the legal determination of their guilt or innocence, however, it is clear that the conduct at issue represents a betrayal of the trust of the American people.

Some would have us believe that these scandals are victimless crimes, or merely depict business as usual in the nation’s capital. While the latter may be true, the American people are the victims, and the institutions to which these lawmakers belong are irreparably harmed. That is because the largess provided to lawmakers by lobbyists, legal or not, cannot be anything other than corrupting.

Can any reasonable person doubt that expensive international golf outings, massive campaign contributions, trips to exotic locations, luxury travel, free meals at expensive restaurants, and the perks associated with lifestyles of the rich and famous—all of which are provided by capitol hill lobbyists—have at least some impact on the decisions of the lawmakers who are the beneficiaries of the lobbyists’ liberality?

If not, why does the lobbying corps dispense such expensive favors only to incumbents? Why do they not continue providing such largess after the lawmakers are out of office?

Lobbyists defend their practices by arguing that providing gifts and contributions merely buy them "access" to lawmakers, not "influence."

Since when, however, do the American people have to pay to gain access to their elected representatives? The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right of the people to petition the government for a redress of their grievances.

Absent a major change, Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike risk making the United States look like a banana republic, in which legislative action is based on payola rather than merit or need. Americans who seek a just society should voice their outrage at the lawmakers who have put up the "For Sale" sign on Capitol Hill.

They should insist on strict reforms which limit the potential of the corrupting influence of money, gifts and favors on our elected officials. They should hold offenders accountable by replacing them at the mid-term election. And they should insist that transgressors of the existing laws be held fully accountable for their wrongdoing.