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Case Bringing New Scrutiny To a System and a Profession

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 4, 2006

The biggest public corruption scandal in a generation took down one of the best-connected lobbyists in Washington yesterday. The question echoing around the capital was what other careers -- and what other familiar ways of doing business -- are endangered.

Jack Abramoff represented the most flamboyant and extreme example of a brand of influence trading that flourished after the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives 11 years ago. Now, some GOP strategists fear that the fallout from his case could affect the party's efforts to keep control in the November midterm elections.

Abramoff was among the lobbyists most closely associated with the K Street Project, which was initiated by his friend Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), now the former House majority leader, once the GOP vaulted to power. It was an aggressive program designed to force corporations and trade associations to hire more GOP-connected lobbyists in what at times became an almost seamless relationship between Capitol Hill lawmakers and some firms that sought to influence them.

Now Abramoff has become a symbol of a system out of control. His agreement to plead guilty to three criminal counts and cooperate with prosecutors threatens to ensnare other lawmakers or their aides -- Republicans and possibly some Democrats. At a minimum, yesterday's developments put both sides of the lawmaker-lobbyist relationship on notice that some of the wilder customs of recent years -- lubricated with money, entertainment and access -- carry higher risks. In the post-Abramoff era, what once was accepted as business as usual may be seen as questionable or worse.

"In the short run, members of Congress will get allergic to lobbyists," said former representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.), now a lobbyist for Clark & Weinstock. "They'll be nervous about taking calls and holding meetings, to say nothing of lavish trips to Scotland. Those will be out. For a period of time now, members of Congress will be concerned about even legitimate contact with the lobbying world."

The initial impact of a scandal that earlier produced a guilty plea from Abramoff associate Michael Scanlon could be changes in the way lawmakers and lobbyists interact. In the longer term, said many lobbyists and others, Congress will be pressured to revisit and toughen rules on gifts and travel that lawmakers and members of their staffs may accept. Some former lawmakers said even bigger changes may be needed to restore public confidence in how Washington works.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who with Weber's help effectively used issues of corruption to wrest control of the House from the Democrats in 1994, said the Abramoff scandal should trigger a broader review in Congress of the way politicians finance campaigns and deal with lobbyists.

"I'm going to talk at length about the need for us to rethink not just lobbying but the whole process of elections, incumbency protection and the way in which the system has evolved," he said. "Which is very different from the way the American system is supposed to be like. I think Abramoff is just part of a large pattern that has got to be rethought."

Emotions ran high on K Street yesterday when news of Abramoff's plea deal began to break. "The Abramoff scandal is causing a reexamination of what lobbyists do in town," said R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "I wouldn't be surprised to see lawmakers become cautious in meetings with lobbyists."

With an eye on November's elections, Republicans have sought to limit the damage to themselves by portraying the scandal as bipartisan, describing Abramoff as an equal-opportunity dispenser of campaign cash and largess.

So far, the public has not identified corruption as solely a Republican problem. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in November asked Americans whether they thought Democrats or Republicans were better on ethical matters; 16 percent said Democrats, 12 percent said Republicans, and 71 percent said there was not much difference between the parties.

But Republicans worry about two possibilities. The first is that Abramoff, known for his close ties to DeLay, mostly implicates Republicans as a result of his plea agreement. That could shift public attitudes sharply against the GOP. "People are uneasy about what else is out there," said one GOP strategist who requested anonymity to speak more candidly about the possible political fallout.

Beyond that is a fear that the scandal and attention it could draw in the months before the election might further sour the public on Washington and Congress. As the party in power, Republicans know they stand to lose more if voters take retribution in November.

Regardless of the electoral implications, the Abramoff scandal may force changes on Capitol Hill in the form of tough new lobbying disclosure laws that even some lobbying advocates say it is time to consider. "There will be a push for increased oversight and disclosure of lobbying," said Douglas G. Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, a lobbyist education group. "There needs to be greater transparency and better enforcement."

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), who co-wrote campaign finance changes a few years ago, have introduced separate proposals that would crack down hard on lobbying as now practiced. Their ideas will serve as the starting point for what is expected to be a vigorous debate.

Some lobbyists reacted defensively yesterday, at pains to say that Abramoff was an exception to the way they do business. "The Abramoff style is so far afield from the normal course of business as to be irrelevant to me and probably most people in my line of work," said Joel Johnson, a Clinton White House official and now a lobbyist for the Glover Park Group.

"The whole Abramoff matter is atypical," agreed Ed Rogers of Barbour Griffith & Rogers. "It is not a lesson of how business is done in Washington."

John Jonas, a lobbyist at Patton Boggs, said he expects "less partying, less gifting, more awareness about compliance" with rules that have been "observed in the breach."

As for the perception of lobbying as a profession, "it's confirmed everybody's worst fears about lobbyists -- that they double-deal, that they're not aboveboard," Jonas said. "That hurts the legitimate practice of the profession."

Gingrich said Republican leaders in Congress should take the initiative to reform lobbying and campaign finance, rather than hoping to slip quietly past the current scandal. "Things have to be done to really rethink where the center of the political process is," he said. "Right now, the center is a lobbying and PAC [political action committee] system center, which is not healthy."

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