All of Washington lives in Newt’s swamp
By Jack Abramoff
The opinions expressed are his own.
Last week, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich romanced the Tea Party activists, who demand that the corrupt swamp of Washington be drained. His intrepid spokesman, R.C. Hammond, had a more arduous task: convincing the world that the former Speaker was not swimming in that same swamp. As facts emerged revealing that Gingrich took almost $2 million in “consulting” fees from the beleaguered Freddie Mac, Hammond delivered proof that the Gingrich operation was master of the inside-the-Washington-beltway game. Spinning Gingrich’s perfidious (yet legal) trip through the infamous revolving door to post public service riches, Hammond posited that taking millions in consulting fees was actually a positive: since Newt now understood “why the system is broken,” he now knew “how it could be fixed.” In other words, now that he had participated in legal corruption, he was more qualified to be our President.
By that metric, I should be announcing my cabinet choices any day now. After all, in 2004, my lobbying activities became the basis for the biggest corruption scandal to hit Washington since Watergate. Gingrich’s candidacy may or may not survive these revelations, but there is a bigger issue to consider than whether this late-night-talk show hosts’ dream politician makes it to the Oval Office.
America is sick of its political leaders raking in millions of dollars in fees from special interests. At a time when the average American can barely afford enough gasoline to get to work, our politicians are converting their elected positions into major paydays. Newt is not the first and won’t be the last to do this. He just has the bad luck to be surging in the polls. But the problem with this latest round of “shoot the leading Republican candidate” is that it deflects attention from the need to change the system. Every time one of these “gotcha” attacks becomes personal, it loses its capacity to engender real reform.
There is something sordid about converting public service to private boodle. Cashing in on government employment to help special interests increase their take at the public trough is even worse. Some politicians aim to become lobbyists the minute they arrive in the Congress. Others wait until defeat or retirement ends their legislative career.
Many – like Gingrich – try to disguise their role in the lobbying monolith by declaring themselves consultants. They cry that they’re not “lobbyists”, they are merely providers of strategic advice. I have news for them: that’s what lobbyists do! Sure, these petitioners only become lobbyists officially once they meet with Congressional members and staff, but the actual face-to-face meetings are usually only one component of lobbying campaigns. I was considered one of the nation’s top lobbyists, but I rarely met with Congressmen and staff about legislation. My forte was creating strategies and game plans, which my minions would implement. How is this much different from what Newt and almost every Democrat and Republican former Congressman and Senator claim to do in lieu of actual lobbying?
In fact, the system disadvantages those public servants who are honest about their jump to the dark side. When a Congressman leaves to become a lobbyist, he must wait two years before calling on his former colleagues. But, when a Congressman calls himself a consultant, a strategic adviser or some other euphemism, the big bucks start rolling in immediately. Plus, there are no lobbying disclosures required of these consultants. We only found out about Newt’s jackpot because he is running for President. There are scores more like him out there offering strategic advice and raking in millions, but they are more cautious than Newt about putting a target on their own head. Former Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole and Tom Daschle come to mind, as do former Congressman Billy Tauzin who decamped for PhRMA and former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt. All have made fortunes lobbying and consulting for special interests, but they have been careful not to reenter electoral politics once they made the jump to K Street.
There’s something really wrong with all of this. The Founding Fathers of our Republic intended for our politicians to be citizen-legislators. Those desiring to serve the public would do so for a short period of time and return to their farms and businesses. Instead, what has developed is a permanent political class, massively enriched by cashing in on government experience. Our nation disdains its leaders, and this is a big part of it. I am often told that the prescriptions for reform I enunciate in my book Capitol Punishment are unlikely because the very people who must enact these reforms are the same ones benefitting from the spoils system ruling our nation’s capital. But that is no excuse. The time has come to lock the revolving door between our public and private sectors. And if our public officials refuse to do what is right, the people should remove them.
When first asked about his work for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Gingrich had the temerity to claim he was hired to provide, in essence, a history lesson. He was, after all, a college history professor. The time has come for Newt and all his doppelgangers to learn a real history lesson: the American people will only permit their politicians to go so far before they are expelled from class.
Buttons in support of Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich are seen for sale before the former speaker of The House spoke at the First Coast Tea Party town hall meeting at Jacksonville Landing in Jacksonville, Florida November 17, 2011. REUTERS/Daron Dean