Change Is Coming: The Question Is Just How Much

Jack Abramoff arrives at the Federal Justice Building to plead guilty to two counts of fraud Wednesday in Miami.
Jack Abramoff arrives at the Federal Justice Building to plead guilty to two counts of fraud Wednesday in Miami. (By Carlo Allegri -- Getty Images)
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, January 9, 2006

Skeptics consider the American system of funding elections a form of legalized bribery. It's legal because the law allows donations up to certain limits. It's "bribery" because the money is given to elect people who will do or have done essentially what the giver wants.

The recent guilty pleas of Jack Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon, however, threaten that tidy description. Lobbyists are worried that perfectly legal contributions will sometimes be construed as prosecutable bribes and that their time-honored and (to them) highly valuable role as fundraisers might soon be thrown into question.

"We're concerned that the cases might create a precedent that would label all legal contributions as bribes," said Douglas G. Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, a nonpartisan lobbyists' education group. "This could cast doubt over the entire campaign-finance process."

Not many people believe that all donations would ever be viewed as "illegal bribes." Then again, any disruption to the system that moves in that direction would probably be good for democracy. The less campaign lucre there is, the better government will be. In an earlier column I recommended that registered lobbyists be barred from raising money for politicians -- at least during congressional sessions -- and I stand by that suggestion.

The notion isn't as crazy as it sounds. Several states already have a similar rule and, as we'll see in spades this year, all sorts of new restrictions will be debated in Congress and some of them will almost surely pass as an antidote to the anti-Washington feelings that the Abramoff affair has stirred.

Even lobbyists are offering drastic proposals. One of Washington's best-regarded lobbyists, Robert E. Juliano, has been talking up public financing of elections as a way to remove the taint that money in politics has brought. In my view that's a noble but impractical idea. Taxpayers won't long tolerate paying for politicians' campaigns with their hard-earned dollars.

In any case, so radical an approach might prove unnecessary if the Abramoff scandal scares enough congressmen and lobbyists into curtailing the wild growth in spending we've seen in congressional and presidential elections over the past several cycles. In the 2004 elections alone, federal candidates raised and spent a whopping $2.42 billion, according to, a huge jump from the 2000 elections.

Certainly, the players in this run-up ought to be plenty frightened about the latest developments. In their conspiracy to bribe lawmakers, Abramoff and Scanlon acknowledged that campaign contributions were one of the emoluments that they provided. Along with sports tickets, foreign trips and fancy dinners, campaign donations -- even those within the legal restrictions -- were among the favors they offered in exchange for official acts.

The mere mention of those donations has sent a chill through the K Street corridor. Lobbyists have long believed that they were home-free no matter how much money they lavished on elections, as long as the amounts were within official limits. And why not? No one in recent memory has been accused of paying off a congressman with a legal campaign contribution.

The last time that a federal lawmaker was charged with accepting donations as a bribe was in the late 1960s. Sen. Daniel B. Brewster (D-Md.) was convicted of taking an illegal gratuity in the form of election funds, but the verdict was overturned by a higher court that ruled that the original judge hadn't instructed the jury thoroughly enough about the differences between bribes and campaign giving.

That was then. Now, in conjunction with the many other goodies that lobbyists can bestow, campaign cash is fair game for the Justice Department -- at least until another judge says otherwise. And that, said Stanley M. Brand of the Brand Law Group, "is a very big deal."

Proof that insiders are troubled by the possibility that campaign donations might be seen as bribes is the torrent of cash flowing out of politicians' coffers and into charities lately. More than two dozen lawmakers and political committees have shed contributions that they attribute to Abramoff and his team, and more are likely to do the same.

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