"There are always going to be lobbyists like I was—who are going to look for loopholes, look to press every advantage to win. That’s just the nature
“There are always going to be lobbyists like I was—who are going to look for loopholes, look to press every advantage to win. That’s just the nature of the game.”
Jack Abramoff was one of Washington’s most successful lobbyists until he was convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion and served 43 months in federal prison. Now he is proposing major federal lobbying reform. He is the author of“Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist” and lectures about the need for ethics and lobbying reform. He was part of an ethics panel during the 2012 NCSL Legislative Summit.
State Legislatures: What are the major provisions of the legislation you are proposing, and where are you in the process?
Jack Abramoff: Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, and his team of constitutional attorneys are drafting an actual bill. Our hope is to come forward with a completed piece of legislation and then politically organize a campaign around that bill. The bill will include a virtual proscription on lobbyists giving money politically. It will reduce them to $100 per cycle and will remove their abilities to bundle and participate in fundraising if they are a lobbyist. It will also redefine what a lobbyist is. Secondly, legislators would not be able to solicit funds from industries they regulate, even in the smaller amounts. One could easily imagine a corporation having a thousand people each giving $100, and now you have a significant fundraiser, so if they’re regulating them, they can’t do that. The next step is to create more of a gap between leaving public service and entering the lobbying industry. We hope to extend that on the federal level to 10 years so that members and staff can’t leave Capitol Hill and then enter the influence industry.
SL: Why are you skeptical that meaningful reform will be enacted at the federal level?
JA: I think it’s possible to enact reform, but to do so will require a very strong political plan because you’re asking members of Congress to give up perks they’ve come to rely on and methods by which they raise campaign funds for themselves. The reforms we’re looking at dramatically impact their lives. Other than with a very hard political plan that organizes massive amounts of voters, it’s going to be very tough to get them to do it, but not impossible at all.
SL: Many states have tougher ethics laws than the ones that apply to Congress. Why do you think that is?
JA: Probably because the states are always closer to the voters and citizens. As government is more local, it becomes more accountable to people who have daily interaction with lawmakers. In Washington. people tend to be isolated, and in the Senate ultimately they become very isolated from their voter groups back home. Where there is more access and accountability, the odds of more laws that seem more sensible and more moral are more likely.
SL: You addressed the Kentucky legislature on ethics. Its campaign finance laws ban political contributions to lawmakers but not from their clients. Is that good enough?
JA: When I was a lobbyist, the massive amount of money I raised was from my clients, not from my pocket. I gave the maximum amount that was allowed by law, but I raised millions per year from my clients. So one needs to look at that particular loophole to fully address the deficiencies in the system.
SL: Many states are grappling with the issue of gambling and online gaming. Is that the biggest potential ethical sinkhole for legislators?
JA: Gambling is almost entirely a political exercise. While I don’t proffer any advice as to whether someone should approve or not approve gambling—I think there are good arguments on both sides—what I have warned is that, if a state decides to make gambling legal, it had best be able to figure out how to control the money from the casinos and how it plays in state politics. Probably the best model is New Jersey, where they barred entirely any money coming from the casinos into their state political races. Other states haven’t done that, and I myself participated in the use of casino money to impact severely some of the state decisions.
SL: You write in your book that political contributions are the lobbyist’s safecracker’s method. Would public financing of campaigns make a difference?
JA: I’m personally against it and don’t think we’d get it anyway. The country is equally divided on it. Conservatives are not in favor of public financing, so it’s almost a moot point; but if it were implemented, the people who are promoting it aren’t thinking like lobbyists. If lobbyists saw a new pot of money, they would be organizing candidates across the fruited plain to run for office and then taking a cut of all the money they got as campaign advisors. It’s another wealth-creating government program. On the other hand, there’s a very strong feeling in this country, as articulated best by Thomas Jefferson, that to force someone to pay their money to promote a belief they don’t believe in is tyranny.
SL: You opposed term limits as a lobbyist, now you don’t. Why?
JA: Philosophically, I opposed them because I believe if people want to vote someone out, let them vote them out. Why disqualify someone? As a lobbyist, I didn’t like them because it’s inconvenient for a lobbyist. When you finally “purchase” an office, you don’t want to have to repurchase it in six years. To a lobbyist, I always say the best legislator was Strom Thurmond. He stayed till he was 100 years old. After I rethought my positions on all these issues, I realized that, while there were many people who get involved in politics in powerful positions and don’t get corrupted, far too many people—as I myself witnessed over the course of the many years I was involved—who started off just fine, and lasted 10 years, then became part of the problem. I felt that fresh blood is what’s needed.
SL: Are lobbyists always going to be able to find their way around laws?
JA: Lobbying is a vital right that we have to petition our government. There are always going to be lobbyists like I was—who play right up to the edge and, in my case, I went over the edge—who are going to look for loopholes, look to press every advantage to win. That’s just the nature of the game. People who get into the business are very competitive in general; the most competitive are the ones who want to win all the time. I say to the reform groups I’m working with that this isn’t a one-time fix. This will be something that occurs every year. When I was on the other side, every time they came up with anything, it didn’t take us long to find the way to work around it legally. Similarly, even the best-intended fixes are going to have flaws. Human beings are human beings and everyone has flaws, so it has to be a dynamic process, not a static process, and it’s going to last forever as long as we have a free republic.
SL: How do you convince people you’re doing this for the right reason?
JA: Everywhere I go, and I speak at least once a week somewhere, there’s a little trepidation. Why am I being invited? What am I going to say? What position do I have? At the beginning, there are certainly hostile folks. They’re not necessarily vocal, but I can tell. Usually, and I can’t think of an exception, at the end of my talk they are virtually unanimous in being happy that I came to speak about these things and the approach that I’m taking. There still are people out there who, no matter what, feel I’m a villain, I’ll always be a villain, and that’s their problem, not mine. I’m just doing the best I can to make recompense for what I did in the past. If people feel I have some other agenda, I don’t know what that is. They have to deal with that themselves.
SL: Will there ever be another Jack Abramoff?
JA: I guarantee you there are plenty of them right now. They just had more prudence about hitting the “delete” button on their emails than I did.
Editor’s note: This interview is part of a series of conversations with opinion leaders. It has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions are the interviewee’s and not necessarily NCSL’s.