The glossy press kit that accompanies Jack Abramoff’s new confessional book predicts that “there will be little applause inside the Beltway” for the notorious ex-lobbyist’s “harsh, thorough roster of reform imperatives” for Washington, D.C.
That’s turned out to be true, Abramoff himself admits.
In an interview with Roll Call on Tuesday, Abramoff acknowledged that his book, “Capitol Punishment,” has not gone over well on K Street or on Capitol Hill. It hasn’t helped that his promotional tour has included comments that as many as a dozen Members of Congress have told him they participated in insider trading while he was a lobbyist.
“There’s been a lot of grumbling on K Street about my book, and there have been a lot of sniping attacks, both from K Street and from the Hill,” said Abramoff, who became the symbol of everything wrong in Washington when he went to jail in 2006, and who has now set out to reinvent himself as an advocate of good-government reforms.
But even as Abramoff has thrown himself into a public relations campaign featuring back-to-back media interviews, a Twitter feed, a Facebook page and negotiations that may lead to a reality TV show, some argue that Abramoff is still unfairly giving K Street a black eye.
Abramoff “has a lot of nerve coming up with suggestions about what ought to be done,” said Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists. Marlowe has long argued that Abramoff was in no way representative of the lobbying industry and that the system worked because Abramoff went to jail for three-and-a-half years.
But Abramoff’s message is that K Street and Washington remain corrupt, and that drastic reforms are needed to fix the system — helping explain why lobbyists are not exactly embracing him with open arms. At the time of the corruption scandal that led to the convictions of more than a half-dozen federal officials, Abramoff argued that he was being blamed for common behavior on K Street. Asked whether he still believes that, Abramoff said: “Yes, unfortunately. That’s my thesis. Most of the stuff I did was not illegal. I did break the law, and I went over the line. And I did what most don’t do. I don’t think most lobbyists break the law. They don’t need to. What’s legal is the problem.”
By that, Abramoff said, he means the campaign finance system that causes Members of Congress to rely on lobbyists for political contributions. “I think that the main thing that distorts the system is the money and the influence it plays inside the system,” he said.
Abramoff’s prescription: Ban lobbyists from making political contributions; bar all gifts and gratuities, without exception; impose term limits on Members of Congress; force lawmakers to comply with all laws that they enact; and end the revolving door that spins between K Street and Capitol Hill.
In his book, he describes how offering jobs to senior Congressional aides allowed him to wield disproportionate influence in Congressional offices. The sweeping lobbying and ethics reforms put in place after his conviction have not fixed much, he said.
“They haven’t addressed the problem,” Abramoff said. “They haven’t cut to the quick, as it were. The reforms that have got to be put in place are reforms that are far more uncomfortable: the ban on donations; the shutting of the revolving door; the cutting out of every gratuity possible, even a glass of water; the term limits; the application of law to [Members of Congress] themselves. None of that is going to be popular up there.”
Marlowe, for one, argues that such steps are unrealistic and possibly unconstitutional.
“Constitutionally, you cannot stop people from contributing, whether those people be lobbyists or non-lobbyists,” he said. However, Marlowe acknowledged that even the American League of Lobbyists has launched a task force to examine the next generation of lobbying reforms, including improved disclosure rules and steps to address the growing role of money in politics.
“What he’s proposing ... is nowhere near realistic,” Marlowe said. “But he is talking about an issue that needs to be pursued.”
As for Abramoff, he argues that the tea party and the Occupy Wall Street movements reflect a public anger that demands Congress to respond.
“I went to prison in part over this,” he said. “And so the question is, will people take the steps that are necessary before things get out of hand in this country ... in the sense that people are just going to give up on our government and give up on our democracy?”
Part of the purpose of “Capitol Punishment,” which tells the story of the scandal from his perspective and with an emphasis on his contrition and his Orthodox Jewish faith, is to set the record straight, he said. Abramoff is $44 million in debt, in part because of restitution to clients he was accused of bilking. His probation — technically a “supervised release” — does not end until December 2013.
“I have the liberty, because I was in that world [and] I was assassinated,” he said. “With that political death came a certain freedom. And I can say what I think happened, and I don’t have to worry about it.”
He added: “If I could un-ring the bell, nobody would un-ring the bell faster than me. But you can’t un-ring the bell. And so I can’t go back.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.