I Know the Congressional Culture of Corruption

By Jack Abramoff

Congressmen accept donations and solemnly recite their oath of office: My vote is not for sale for a mere contribution. They are wrong.

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Associated Press

Though democracy is not perfect, it is certainly the most effective polity; as Winston Churchill averred, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest. Human social systems usually last but a few generations before collapsing into the abyss of entropy. It is, therefore, quite remarkable that our republic just celebrated its 236th anniversary.

Nevertheless, corruption has dulled the luster of the American political experiment and left our citizenry confused and irascible. And nothing has provoked outrage across the fruited plain as has the chicanery of the special interests and their emissaries, the lobbyists.

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Our system allows interested parties to provide public servants with remuneration even as they badger those same officeholders to intercede in the parties' private affairs. This use of money to buy outcomes is most striking in the legislative branch of our government and only slightly less pervasive in the executive branch. It is in the judiciary that law and public consensus are better aligned to forbid the use of financial inducement.

No one would seriously propose visiting a judge before a trial and offering a financial gratuity, or choice tickets to an athletic event, in exchange for special consideration from the bench. Yet no inside-the-Beltway hackles are raised when a legislative jurist -- also known as a congressman -- receives a campaign contribution even as he contemplates action on an issue of vital importance to the donor.

During the years I was lobbying, I purveyed millions of my own and clients' dollars to congressmen, especially at such decisive moments. I never contemplated that these payments were really just bribes, but they were. Like most dissembling Washington hacks, I viewed these payments as legitimate political contributions, expressions of my admiration of and fealty to the venerable statesman I needed to influence.

Outside our capital city (and its ever-prosperous contiguous counties), the campaign contributions of special interests are rightly seen as nothing but bribes. The purposeful dissonance of the political class enables congressmen to accept donations and solemnly recite their real oath of office: My vote is not for sale for a mere contribution. They are wrong. Their votes are very much for sale, only they don't wish to admit it. The reason they don't feel they are being bought is that the interaction seems so normal. In fact, were they not public servants, it would be very normal.

In polite society, we want to create indebtedness and gratitude. These are the sensations that build great civilizations. When I do something nice for you, unless you are a jerk, you feel some gratitude and try, in some way, to reciprocate. One kindness breeds another. That's what we should all desire.

The human soul does not permit us to leave our debts unpaid, and gratitude is the minimal sensation of repayment a normal person can provide. This is all fine for normal society, but when the recipient of kindness and administrator of gratitude is a public servant, the otherwise positive relationship dynamic becomes negative and venal.

When a public servant has a debt to someone seeking a favor from the government, the foundation of our government is at risk. Each time a lobbyist or special interest makes a political contribution to a public servant, a debt is created. Lobbyists are very adept at collecting these debts. Unfortunately, the true debtor on these obligations is the American people. In a very real way, congressmen who take contributions from lobbyists and special interests are selling our nation to repay their debts of gratitude. That is the price of their votes and offices -- and it must stop.

Working with United Republic and legal experts such as Trevor Potter, I am engaged in a mighty effort to reverse the special interest tide in Washington. We are now drafting legislation that will make real, systemic changes to the campaign finance system, virtually eliminating the use of contributions and financial gratuities by lobbyists, their clients, and all who besiege Congress looking for special grants, loans, tax breaks, contracts, and favors.

The effort will require several election cycles to break the stranglehold of the powerful corporations, unions, and individuals who extract lucre from the federal government with the skill employed by the most capable milking machine. But after traveling throughout our nation and participating in more than 300 television and radio programs since the publication of my book dealing with these matters, I am convinced that the vast majority of our fellow citizens want an end to the bribery and corruption that pervade our federal political system.

For too long, Americans have despaired and surrendered to the powerful special interests in Washington. I know; I used to be one of those special interests. The time has come for real change in our nation's capital. That change will come not through politicians but rather through the determination and activism of American patriots. Let's just hope the process is less arduous than the last time our citizens felt the need to throw off a corrupt tyranny. We celebrate that victory annually -- on July 4.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/07/i-know-the-congressional-culture-of-corruption/260081/