Jack Abramoff, still a conservative – mostly

That’s essentially the lament offered by former super lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who spent more than three years in federal prison for corrupting congressmen and staffers as he advocated on behalf of clients, primarily U.S. Indian tribes.

Put simply, Abramoff says the problem is that the federal government is too big, has too much power and too much money. In his book, “Capitol Punishment,” he argues that if we’d shrink that government and limit its powers, there would be nothing for lobbyists to fight over.

And while Abramoff says the Democrats are typically the party arguing for the expansion of government, members of both parties are equally to blame.

“I think they’re both at fault; there are people in both parties who are good, and there are people in both parties who are bad,” he said in an interview. “The problem, though, is that the system that has created the thousands and thousands of lobbyists that course through the streets of Washington, D.C., is the system of the expansion of the federal government. The federal government in the old days, in the constitutional days, didn’t require a lot of lobbyists. There might have been a few there, but there weren’t the kind of numbers that we’re looking at today.”

So, according to the former national chairman of the College Republicans, we fix the system he corrupted so thoroughly by following the political and economic prescriptions that he’s advocated his entire life? It’s like the old joke: Would-be politicians say the government is incompetent, and then they get elected and prove it.

But the fact remains, corruption is a constant companion to power, and as Abramoff proved, the system is vulnerable. Isn’t it possible, however, to treat government like we treat nuclear power: Contained and focused, harnessed to provide energy but controlled so as not to reach critical mass and massive destruction? In other words, isn’t Abramoff’s binary choice – strict limits on powers and taxes or blatant corruption – a classic case of false alternatives?

And another thing: As a man who made the Washington system hum for his clients, it’s somewhat surprising to hear Abramoff cheer the gridlock that currently grips Washington. Again, it springs from his conservative ideology.

“I think what’s causing the gridlock in Washington is that the Republican Party no longer goes along with the premises of the Democratic Party,” he explained. “And the Democratic Party and their acolytes in the media and elsewhere are upset about it.

“You have one party that believes economically that the budget has to be paired back significantly, to constitutional levels of government and that taxes need to be reduced to spur the economy. On the other side, you have a party that believes that stimulus spending and more government programs and more taxation and more importuning the wealthy to put up more money is the way to go. And these are two vastly different world views. I don’t know how they’re reconciled. It’s as if one party says two plus two equals four, the party says two plus two equals six. Compromise is not two plus two equals five. That is still a wrong answer.”

Indeed, says Abramoff, compromise itself can be a bad thing: “Every time they [the two parties] got along, they spent more money and raised our taxes. That’s what they do when they get along. When they don’t get along, bad things usually don’t happen to us.”

But if Abramoff is still a committed conservative on economic issues, some of his proposed reforms may make some on the right squeamish. For example, Abramoff proposed in “Capitol Punishment” that members of Congress and their staffs be banned – for life! – from serving as lobbyists. (He’s since changed that to advocate a 10-year cooling off period.)

The ban makes sense: Promises of lucrative future employment as a lobbyist are how Abramoff says he corrupted some congressional offices. But it has implications for free speech as well.

So does Abramoff’s other major reform: A ban on gifts and campaign contributions from lobbyists to lawmakers of anything more than $100 per person per year. Abramoff knows the fancy dinners, golf games, foreign trips and tickets to sporting events were the currency that bought him many a vote and, ultimately, more than three years in prison. Then again, real-world experience has a tendency to temper ideology.


Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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