Al Kamen
Al Kamen
In the Loop

Abramoff’s back, scolding lobbyists

During Wednesday’s balmy afternoon, a familiar scene in Washington unfolded: There was Jack Abramoff, sitting in his usual window seat at Eli’s, the kosher Dupont Circle deli, greeting the regulars.

It was as though the ex-lobbyist had never left. By “left,” we mean “was incarcerated in the federal pen,” and by “ex-lobbyist,” we include “convicted felon.”

Al Kamen

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. He began his reporting career at the Rocky Mountain News and joined The Post in 1980. He has covered local and federal courts, the Supreme Court and the State Department. Follow him on Twitter.

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Such semantics aside, it seems Abramoff’s redemption tour is complete. He’s never been more visible — you can catch him on the cable-news circuit, commenting on the need for lobbying reform, or blasting GOP hopeful Newt Gingrich (another comeback kid) for, of all things, corruption.

At Eli’s, he had traded that iconic fedora — a reminder of the old Jack — for a black velvet yarmulke, a reminder of his faith.

He’s got a book out (really, who doesn’t these days?). And on Monday, he’ll be giving a talk at, of all places, the watchdog group Public Citizen, where he’ll be outlining his proposals for cleaning up the influence industry.

Public Citizen President Robert Weissman tells us his organization reached out to Abramoff, not the other way around. He thinks the former lobbyist actually has some pretty good ideas for reforming the system governing lobbying.

“We’re not inviting him here to give him a citizen-of-the-year award,” he said.

Abramoff’s carefully constructed makeover from ex-con to reformer might rely on the Washington establishment’s willingness to buy it, and Weissman says he’s got the goods to sell.

“He has credibility in explaining how lobbyists exert influence, and it’s not important to us what his motivations are,” he said.

Room on the bench

A new tradition is developing in the dysfunctional Washington family: the election-year presidential attack on the Senate for blocking judicial nominees.

In his Saturday address, President Obama decried Senate Republican threats to block his nominees, saying “all of the judicial nominees being blocked have bipartisan support.”

Four years ago, on Feb. 7, 2008, George W. Bush, in his Saturday radio address, complained that Senate Democrats were slow-walking his judicial nominees. And we recall Bill Clinton having similar concerns.

Obama is right that Senate Republicans have been particularly aggressive in blocking his nominees, the liberal Alliance for Justice found in a recently released study. The Senate confirmed 81 percent of Clinton’s nominees in the first three years, 78 percent of Bush’s and only 71 percent of Obama’s.

But it’s also true that, while Obama criticizes the Senate for not moving fast enough, Obama has sent far fewer judicial nominees to the Senate at the end of three years than either Bush or Clinton, even though he’s had roughly the same number of vacancies to fill.

There were also a record number of 30 judicial “emergencies” — defined by the U.S. Judicial Conference as a long-standing vacancy in a busy courthouse.

But it turns out that, at year’s end, there were no nominees before the Senate for 15 of those “emergency” seats — though the Republicans blocked five additional nominees for those seats and slow-walked others.

Administration officials say a chronic problem is that some Democratic senators with judicial vacancies in their states have been extremely slow in proposing candidates — which is how both parties generally select nominees for the lower courts.

Presidents often rightly gripe about this problem, we recall, but it’s quite beside the point. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution says the president, not senators, nominates judges. “The buck stops here,” as Harry Truman said.

It’s expected that most of the 20 nominees now at the Senate Judiciary Committee may be cleared in the next couple of months to join the other 19 already on the Senate floor.

Unless Senate Republicans, furious over Obama’s recess appointments, simply shut down all confirmations, there’s a decent chance most of that group of 39 could be confirmed.

But things are going to get dicey after that. We hear the administration has another couple dozen or so folks ready to be nominated soon and some more to go into the pipeline after that.

Our hunch is that very few of them will be putting on the robes anytime soon because of the dreaded Thurmond Rule — named for Strom Thurmond, the late senator from South Carolina.

The “rule,” which apparently dates to 1980, posits that sometime after spring in a presidential election year, no judges will be confirmed without the consent of the Republican and Democratic leaders and the Judiciary Committee chairman and ranking minority member.

On June 12, 2008, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said that “we are now way past the time” for invoking that rule.

Well, given the GOP mood on the Hill, the Republicans — if they are even allowing judges to be confirmed — may decide old Strom should be resurrected this year, maybe, oh, sometime in May.

Most administrations try to put younger judges on the bench. The obvious reasons are that those judges — especially those on the appeals courts — will be able to dominate the courts for longer and will not be too old to fill seats on the Supreme Court.

But Obama administration picks confirmed for appellate courts — the likely place to look for nominees to the Supreme Court — averaged 55.4 years old, the Alliance study found, nearly six years older than Bush’s nominees, nearly seven years older than George H.W. Bush’s nominees and more than four years older than Clinton’s.

Could make for a mighty thin bench available to some future Democratic president.

The rest of the story

Our colleague Paul Kane has received a lot of e-mail criticizing him for an article Tuesday about the retirement of Rep. Dan Burton, former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The Indiana Republican’s departure is a great loss to reporters everywhere, including this column, where Burton’s efforts were always great fodder.

Kane included some of Burton’s greatest hits during his zealous — some say overzealous — pursuit of President Clinton and officials from his administration in the 1990s: from shooting watermelons in his back yard to examine bullet angles related to the suicide of a top White House aide to issuing subpoenas to the wrong man to releasing false tapes of an imprisoned Clinton confidant.

But the criticism of the story, mostly from former Republican aides, said Kane failed to include numerous gems, such as Burton’s having an extramarital affair and a child born out of wedlock when he was in the Indiana legislature, his scheduling a hearing in Los Angeles at just about the same time as he was playing in the pro-am portion of the 2000 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in Palm Springs, his skipping 19 House votes in January 2007 in order to play again in that golf tourney, and so forth.

Hey, sometimes you run out of space, you know?

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter:@InTheLoopWP.

 
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