Republicans gone wild

"Ethics reform" gestures and suddenly hazy memories can't hide the truth: Abramoff is an integral part of the GOP machine that revved up with the '94 "revolution."

Published January 19, 2006 11:06AM (EST)

Hardly anyone in the Republican Party, in Congress or at the White House, seems to recall ever having met Jack Abramoff. Collective amnesia has suddenly descended upon the capital. The super-lobbyist, whose plea bargain with prosecutors requires the extensive naming of names of members of Congress, staffers, ex-staffers, lobbyists, friends, colleagues and his own personal assistants, is spending his days racking his memory for details of their relationships that may become the basis for bills of indictment.

Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials, has left a trail of hard evidence in addition to his sworn confessions. At the end of every business day his former assistant wrote a summary of all his contacts and their conversations, e-mailed it to him and carefully saved it; these documents mapping the days and ways of Jack Abramoff are now in the hands of the prosecutors. (Abramoff's former assistant, Susan Ralston, moved seamlessly from his employ to the White House to become Karl Rove's assistant, where she regularly vetted supplicants to Rove through Grover Norquist, Abramoff's longtime political associate and business partner.)

Abramoff's appearance at the federal courthouse in Washington on Jan. 3 attired in black fedora and black trench coat, like an old-style "Mustache Pete" Mafioso, was bizarre but brilliant self-casting. He was not only his own producer but also his own dresser. In fact, Abramoff loved to recite lines from "The Godfather." One of his favorite bits was Michael Corleone's reply to a politician seeking a cut of his illegal businesses: "Senator, you can have my answer now if you like. My offer is this: nothing."

Abramoff's theatricality is intertwined with his politics. The graduate of Beverly Hills High School is the son of the president of the franchises division of the Diners Club and close to Ronald Reagan's kitchen cabinet of California millionaires. The father financed young Jack's takeover of the College Republicans. After depleting the treasury of Citizens for America, a conservative group founded by drugstore mogul Lewis Lehrman, Abramoff produced a violence-packed, B-grade Cold War movie, "Red Scorpion." With the capture of Congress by the Republicans in 1994, he hustled to Washington for the barbecue.

For more than a decade, Abramoff ran wild. From the offices of two major law firms, Preston Gates & Ellis and Greenberg Traurig, he traded in politicians and clients with abandon. He used false charities and phony think tanks, doled out all-expenses-paid trips, and opened his own Capitol Hill steakhouse called Signatures, where he picked up congressmen's tabs, to become wealthy and influential. He moved effortlessly from being a "friend of Newt," former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, to being a "friend of Tom," former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. His associates from his College Republican days, Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, were his musketeers. Reed, former president of the Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, became Abramoff's instrument for buying and manipulating leaders of the religious right to grease his elaborate schemes to bilk Indian tribes that had hired him to help them win approval of their casinos. These were just a few of the Abramoff ploys now being untangled by prosecutors.

In his brazenness, extravagance and heedlessness, Abramoff was one of a kind. Almost all lobbyists earning the kind of money he raked in follow the Washington rule of melting into the scenery. But Abramoff is not simply unique; he is also symptomatic. Abramoff's crimes are not illustrations of Washington generically gone haywire. He was not an accident waiting to happen. Nor was he just the latest in a dime-a-dozen scandals. Nor does he represent the vice of both parties. Above all, what he is not is a lobbyist who "bought Washington."

Abramoff has been an integral part of the Republican political machine that has flourished since the 1994 takeover. He has created vast slush funds at the disposal of DeLay (for example, the U.S. Family Network, financed by Russian oil tycoons), worked hand in glove with DeLay's political operatives, and supported the Republican congressional leadership with funds and favors. Abramoff's lobbying and politics are inextricable, one and the same, allowing him to simultaneously serve as a valuable member of the Republican machine and be out for himself. He was not the most significant player; nor was his tens of millions more money than bigger figures made. (Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and former senior partner of a major Washington law firm, and currently governor of Mississippi, comes to mind.) But Abramoff, more than those with more influence or wealth, has the distinction of being the culmination of the recent history of the Republican Congress.

The Abramoff affair is the greatest congressional scandal in American history since the Crédit Mobilier. In 1873, a congressional investigation revealed that the holding company of the Union Pacific Railroad had dispensed stock to 30-some members of Congress; two were censured, none indicted. Undoubtedly, the punishments arising from the Abramoff affair will be more extensive than those from the Crédit Mobilier.

The latest Republican talking point on Abramoff is: I can't recall. DeLay had previously called him a "close personal friend." But an article last month in the Washington Post strangely reported: "The two met at a DeLay fundraiser on Capitol Hill in 1995, according to a former senior DeLay aide. The aide recalled that Edwin A. Buckham, then DeLay's chief of staff, told his boss: 'We really need to work with Abramoff; he is going to be an important lobbyist and fundraiser.' DeLay, a Christian conservative, did not quite know what to make of Abramoff, who wore a beard and a yarmulke. They forged political ties, but the two men never became personally close, according to associates of both men." The anti-Semitic undercurrent of DeLay's revisionism in his belated effort to distance himself is a piquant touch.

On Tuesday, in his first press conference of the new year, at his Capitol Hill office, Speaker Dennis Hastert described Abramoff as completely unfamiliar: "Well, you know, a year ago most people around Congress couldn't tell you who Jack Abramoff was and didn't know who his associates were or what connections there are." Meanwhile, that same day, at the briefing conducted by the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan gave murky explanations of Abramoff's dealings at the Bush White House. Abramoff had been one of Bush's top fundraisers (designated a "Pioneer" for raising more than $100,000 for the reelection campaign), been a member of the transition team for the Department of the Interior, and billed two tribal chiefs $25,000 for a White House lunch and meeting with President Bush. McClellan conceded Abramoff had been invited to a couple of Chanukah parties. At his Jan. 5 press briefing, when asked about Abramoff's participation in staff meetings, McClellan had said, "I'm making sure that I have a thorough report back to you on that. And I'll get that to you, hopefully very soon." Asked again by a reporter, "Who was in the staff meetings?" McClellan replied, "I don't get into discussing staff-level meetings." Thus Abramoff's history, and that of the Republicans, are being distorted, airbrushed or stonewalled.

In 1994, the law firm of Preston Gates & Ellis sent out a press release hailing its new partner, Jack Abramoff, who "developed and maintains strong ties to Speaker Newt Gingrich." National Journal reported: "The GOP victories in 1994 transformed [Abramoff] into a valuable asset as law firms recruited activists with connections to the new Gingrich team."

Gingrich, representing a congressional district of suburban white flight from Atlanta, touted himself as a cosmic thinker and Napoleonic military strategist. On a large easel, in one of his lectures, he described himself as "Teacher of the Rules of Civilization." Born Newt McPherson, Gingrich was the stepson of an abusive Army officer. He married one of his high school teachers and later handed her divorce papers in her hospital room while she was recovering from cancer surgery. He left teaching at West Georgia College to enter politics. A secret 1960s wannabe, he identified the enemy as "the Great Society countercultural model" and the goal as a Conservative Opportunity Society (the name of a group he founded).

The House Republican whip, Dick Cheney, quietly sponsored Gingrich's rise. Gingrich's method was to accuse congressional Democrats of scandal and manipulate the press into covering it. "I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty," he said. And he boasted, "We are engaged in reshaping the whole nation through the news media."

After Gingrich whipped up a commotion against Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright, forcing his resignation over a union's bulk buying of copies of his memoir, Gingrich's staff was caught smearing the new speaker, the gentlemanly Tom Foley, as a closet gay, which he was not. Then Gingrich fostered a furor over the House members' bank, a kind of credit union from which they had always drawn loans against their paychecks. It was, political scientist Nelson Polsby wrote in his book "How Congress Evolves," "a comic-opera fiasco that the news media, skillfully abetted by a group of enthusiastic Republican members, pumped up into a Wagnerian Götterdämmerung." Several of Gingrich's Republicans were caught up in this pseudo-scandal and quit Congress, but he was willing to step over their bodies.

After the Republican sweep in 1994, Gingrich held a mad celebration featuring people dressed as the cartoon Power Rangers and Rush Limbaugh. One new Republican member, Sonny Bono, who had fallen from grace as a celebrity, warned Gingrich to guard against hubris.

The failed professor, now speaker, sent his aides and followers for training to U.S. Army training and doctrine centers at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and Fort Monroe, Va., and called himself CEO. He suffered from mood swings of extreme highs and lows, bouncing from grandiose schemes to uncontrollable sobbing. He instructed his aides, "You guys have to tell reporters if they're going to cover the Republicans now, they need a romantic view of history."

Almost at once, he took a $4.5 million book advance from Rupert Murdoch's publishing house, HarperCollins, and just as quickly in the resulting controversy was forced to give it back. For Murdoch, the ridiculously exorbitant advance was chump change, considering his stake in telecommunications legislation.

DeLay, a former exterminator from Sugar Land, Texas, who referred to the Environmental Protection Agency as the "Gestapo," was the new House Republican whip. What became the K Street Project, melding Republicans and lobbyists, was launched immediately, in January 1995. Initially, DeLay called it Project Relief. He gathered 350 industry lobbyists to work closely with his staff to write legislation to halt regulation. "They have the expertise," DeLay explained about the lobbyists who were recruited to draft bills he proposed. Even before the Republicans had won control in 1994, DeLay met for lunch with 30 or 40 corporate lobbyists every Tuesday in the boardroom of the Independent Insurance Agents of America. These lobbyists financed his race for Republican whip, and even before the brand-new Congress met to vote on its leadership, DeLay had wrapped up his position. Among the Republican leaders, he was the only one with his own independent power base. And Project Relief made its power felt at once. Within a month after the new Republican Congress was sworn in, it voted for a 100-day moratorium on all federal regulation of industry.

DeLay compiled a book listing every industry political action committee, more than 400, marked either "friendly" or "unfriendly," depending on their contributions. "See, you're in the book," he said to one lobbyist as he showed him his PAC listing. DeLay kept the book on a coffee table in his office. On the wall hung a bullwhip. He was the enforcer of Gingrich's rule: "If you want to play in our revolution, you have to live by our rules." In 1995, DeLay met privately with more than 400 of the Fortune 500 companies, explaining why it was in their interest to abide by "our rules." By then, the Republicans had raised twice the amount of campaign money as the Democrats. The tobacco companies topped the big givers.

Project Relief morphed into the K Street Project. "We don't like to deal with people who are trying to kill the revolution," DeLay said. Law firms, trade associations and industries that hired Democrats were ostracized. "You need to hire a Republican," DeLay told these Washington outfits. And the business groups also had to kick in campaign money, lots of it. DeLay personally sent letters to PACs telling them exactly how much money they had to contribute and to which Republican candidates and committees. The K Street Project merged corporate interests with the Republican Party; served as an employment agency for activists and staffers, who were turned into lobbyists; and converted the lobbyists into writers of legislation, and the service sector of Washington into a bank for the party.

In November 1995, Gingrich demanded that President Clinton agree to massive cuts in Medicare and nearly equally massive regression tax cuts for the wealthy, and when Clinton refused, he shut down the federal government, for the first time in U.S. history. Medicare, he was quoted as saying, should "wither on the vine." Then, after reopening the government and conducting negotiations with Clinton, Gingrich forced another shutdown. "I don't care what the price is," he said. But the consequence was his discrediting. Most of the "Contract With America," the manifesto the Republicans ran on in 1994, was never enacted.

In 1996, the House Ethics Committee found that Gingrich had made false statements to it in the course of an investigation, fined him $300,000 and issued an official reprimand. It was the most severe penalty ever levied against a speaker. Gingrich's scandal involved crossing the wires of his intellectual vanity with his special interests. And it was related to the government shutdown he had insisted on.

Gingrich used tax deductions to finance political operations run through his political action committee, GOPAC, and think tank, the Progress and Freedom Foundation. One of these operations was a lecture series he taped, titled "Renewing American Civilization." Among GOPAC's biggest donors was J. Patrick Rooney, chairman of the Golden Rule Insurance Co. (Rooney's daughter served as GOPAC's deputy finance director.) Golden Rule sought the privatization of Medicare and its replacement by "medical savings accounts." In his "college course," Gingrich even included a promotional film for MSAs produced by Golden Rule.

In 1997, the other Republican leaders attempted a coup to replace Gingrich. DeLay gave his assent to the plot but lay in the background. But the putsch failed, and Gingrich demanded that its leader, rising young star Rep. Bill Paxon of New York, resign from the House. Days later, a bright young journalist, Sandy Hume, of the Hill newspaper, who had used Paxon as his source to disclose details of the coup, committed suicide. Hume, it was said, was despondent over having been arrested for drunken driving.

Gingrich, at low ebb, grasped onto the impeachment of President Clinton as his lifeline. He pressed it as the No. 1 issue in the 1998 midterm elections, but the Republicans lost five seats in the House. The public was simply opposed to an impeachment. Within two days, Gingrich resigned as speaker. The Republican leadership, especially DeLay, did not believe Gingrich was tough enough to push forward against Clinton. "I melt when I'm around him," Gingrich confessed to his second wife about Clinton. For more than a year Republicans sent a bodyguard, hardliner Richard Armey, to accompany Gingrich on all trips to the White House, fearing that Gingrich would compromise. Some of the Republicans also were privy to the information that Gingrich was personally vulnerable: His mistress was on the House payroll. And a few months after he quit as speaker, Gingrich told his second wife in a telephone call that he was leaving her.

Rep. Robert Livingston of Louisiana became acting speaker, but not for long. On the day of impeachment, Dec. 19, 1998, he resigned when pornographer Larry Flynt threatened to release sex tapes of his extramarital affairs. Livingston was a capable deal maker, but he was gone before he arrived.

The new speaker, Dennis Hastert, a former high school wrestling coach from Illinois, was DeLay's sock puppet. DeLay had coerced impeachment, threatening moderates with far-right primary opponents, and it left his power among House Republicans unimpaired. If anything, his ability to intimidate members was augmented.

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas positioned himself in his presidential campaign as a voice of reason and moderation, unblemished by the Republican Congress. He picked a strategic fight with DeLay over the earned-income tax credit for the working poor in order to assert his credentials as a "compassionate conservative." It was clear who was not compassionate.

Once Bush was elected, the Republican Congress, especially the House, became his essential prop of power. In the House, there is no actual legislative process. The workweek is typically only two days, like that of a small, minor state legislature. The Rules Committee forbids members from altering bills on the floor. Votes are blocked on bills that have bipartisan support, such as an extension of unemployment benefits that is opposed by a majority of the Republicans. Bills are crafted in the dead of night, behind closed doors, by a select group of Republican leaders, often without floor debate. The Boston Globe, in a 2004 series on the influence of lobbyists, reported that "on the Medicare and energy bills, businesses and other groups who reported lobbying on the two measures spent a staggering $799,091,391 in efforts to influence lawmakers, frequently employing former members of Congress, former staff members, and relatives of lawmakers to lobby on the bills." In addition, the Globe reported, the Republican Congress added "3,407 'pork barrel' projects to appropriations bills for this year's federal budget, items that were never debated or voted on beforehand by the House and Senate and whose congressional patrons are kept secret."

When it appeared that a Medicare bill would be defeated on the floor, Hastert kept debate open for three hours beyond its stipulated limit. DeLay twisted the arm of Rep. Nick Smith of Michigan, promising him $100,000 in campaign contributions for his son, who was running for Congress, if he would switch his vote. Smith changed from "yea" to "nay." Smith confessed to the allegation of bribery and then withdrew the confession. Nonetheless, the Ethics Committee, which DeLay has attempted to shut down, delivered a "public admonishment" to DeLay.

This month, DeLay resigned his post as majority leader under the strain of his criminal trial in Texas and the Abramoff revelations. In Texas, DeLay has been indicted for illegally siphoning corporate funds into state political campaigns. By using his political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority, as a conduit, he financed races in the Texas Legislature; then the Legislature, at his prompting, redrew congressional districts, removing Democrats from their seats and padding the Republican majority in the House. Last month, the Washington Post disclosed that Justice Department lawyers had found that DeLay's scheme violated the Voting Rights Act, disenfranchising black and Hispanic voters, but Bush administration officials overruled them.

In the battle of succession to DeLay, DeLayism will triumph. The leading candidate for majority leader, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, is so close to lobbyists that he left his wife to marry the lobbyist for Altria, the company that owns Philip Morris. In 2002, he inserted a provision into a homeland security bill to increase the penalties for selling stolen cigarettes. Blunt's son happens to be a lobbyist; his other son is the Republican governor of Missouri. He stands for nothing but business as usual. His challenger, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, runs a group called the K Street Cabinet. In 1995, on the floor of the House, Boehner handed out checks from tobacco lobbyists to Republican members, something he says he regrets.

The House Republicans this week relaunched themselves as champions of reform, presenting a program to clean up the stain left by Abramoff and DeLay. Their proposal, however, would not prevent members from accepting meals and travel from lobbyists so long as they were linked to campaign fundraising. But such a program cannot distract from the spectacle about to unfold.

The Abramoff affair is only at its start, and numerous members of the Congress and prominent Republican lobbyists and operatives may well and soon be ensnared. Behind closed doors, Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon, DeLay's former communications director, are singing.

Historians in the future will examine the implications and nuances of the Abramoff affair, the K Street Project and the trajectory of the Republican Congress from the dawn of its "revolution" to its Thermidorian dusk. For now, however, the matter is in the hands of the prosecutors.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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