The impact of money on politics in the United States is a hotly debated topic these days as tens of millions of dollars flow freely into the presidential election as a result of the Citizen United decision handed down by the Supreme Court. The high court’s ruling allows individuals and corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to Super PACs that support individual candidates. (See: Super PACs: It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s — Well, It’s complicated)
To date, many millionaires and billionaires have contributed to the candidate of their choice, and companies have done the same. Many Super PAC critics argue that this influx of money will tip the election results in the favour of whoever can raise the most money, essentially buying the election.
But that is not the only issue to be concerned about, says ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The American people should be concerned about what these donors may eventually ask for in return for their financial support, especially those who are registered lobbyists, or people whose job it is to persuade lawmakers to craft legislation to the benefit of their employers.
As a former Washington insider, Abramoff knows all too well the influence money can get you in D.C. He spent years building influence with many of our elected officials, bestowing them lavish gifts, dinners and campaign contributions. All that stopped in 2006 when he plead guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. He subsequently served 43 months in jail.
While Abramoff served his time and repented for his crimes, little has changed in Washington. The legalized bribery that got him into trouble still exists between K Street and our elected officials, which is why he is on a crusade against the very industry and dealings that got him into trouble.
Abramoff, who is also the author of the new book, Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist, joined The Daily Ticker’s Henry Blodget to discuss the current corruption in Washington as it pertains to the multi-billion dollar a year lobbying industry and how to change it.
The problem is rampant when it comes to influencing legislation, he says. “In the same way that every $20 bill or $100 bill in America has cocaine on it at some level, there is some aspect of bribery and some aspect of corruption in every one of the [legislative] dealings just because of the pervasive nature of this system.”
From 2008 to 2011, special interest groups spent nearly $3.5 billion a year to peddle influence, according to OpenSecrets.org. The top spenders from 1998 to 2011 include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spending a total of $805 million, the American Medical Association spending $265 million and General Electric (GE), which spent $293 million.
What is it that these companies and organisations are buying? They are buying access to make sure they are in the game, Abramoff says.
“The are putting a good defence on the field to make sure nothing happens to them… . They are also on offence [as] a lot of companies use the government to smash their opponents,” he says. “If you cannot talk to the person making the decision, you are going to lose.”
In the accompanying video, Abramoff explains how lobbying really works. And yes, as it turns out, it is all completely legal.
“You can be completely contemptible, frankly, within the system and be completely legal and that is part of the problem of Washington,” he says. “Basically what it comes down to is making a relationship with a senator, Congressman or his staff and then availing oneself of the relationship and going into your friend and seeing if that friend would reasonably agree to the thing you are asking for. And that, by the way, is all fine, except for the money part.”
As Abramoff tells Henry, he is not outright against lobbying because he does believe people have the right to petition the government. However, he feels money should be taken out of the game and that these four rules should be instituted.
1. Institute term limits for members of Congress so it is less likely they can be influenced by special interests.
2. Shut the revolving door between public service and the influence industry, which he explains is much more than just lobbying.
3. Ban all financial contributions from anyone who does business in Washington including meals, fundraisers or campaign contributions.
4. Every law that they make needs to be applied to them.
Abramoff is confident that these rules would completely change the way Washington works, but the most important thing is taking money out of the special interest game. In doing so, “hopefully [Congress] members would have to go out and raise money among people who actually think they are good members of the legislature,” he says. “They wouldn’t be selling their vote, even thought they don’t call it selling their vote to the highest bidder.”
For more of our interview with Jack Abramoff, see:
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