The Magazine

A Lobbyist's Progress

From the December 20, 2004 issue: Jack Abramoff and the end of the Republican Revolution.

Dec 20, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 14 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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IN HONOR OF THE TENTH anniversary of the fabled Republican Revolution--for precisely a decade has flown by since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, following forty years of Democratic darkness--let us pause from our noise-making and silly-hat-wearing to ponder the story of Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon. They have lately been much in the news.

Abramoff was until recently a registered lobbyist, and Scanlon offers himself as a public affairs specialist, but more precisely they are what Republicans in Washington used to call "Beltway Bandits," profiteers who manipulate the power of big government on behalf of well-heeled people who pay them tons of money to do so. Sometime around 1995, Republicans in Washington stopped using the term "Beltway Bandits."

But they still exist, and how, and if you're a bandito of the Beltway variety, being "in the news" is a delicate matter. You want to be in the news, but not too much in the news. When the low-circulation, high-impact Washington magazine National Journal labels you, as it did Abramoff a couple years ago, "an object of awe on K Street," then that's exactly the kind of news you want to be in. (K Street, in downtown Washington, is where all the lobbyists have offices, just as securities traders used to be confined to Wall Street and drunks to Skid Row.) And when the low-circulation, high-impact Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call underscores your close connections to powerful House Republicans, as it did for Scanlon a while back, that's excellent news to be in, too. But when, on the other hand, the high-circulation, high-impact Washington Post runs stories underneath headlines that say: "Lobbyist Quits as Firm Probes Work with Tribe," followed by "Ex-Lobbyist is Focus of Widening Investigations," well, then, you know you are too much in the wrong kind of news.

For Abramoff and Scanlon, the wrong kind of news has only intensified in the last couple months. In September and then in November, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held hearings on the pair's relations with a half-dozen Indian tribes who had hired them. Indian tribes have become big clients on K Street, believe it or not. In 1988, Congress authorized, and then established regulations over, casino gambling on Indian reservations. The result, from a lobbyist's perspective, couldn't have been happier. Gambling had two main effects. It made some tribes very rich--Indian casinos bring in as much as $30 million a month--and it permanently entangled those gambling tribes with a Washington bureaucracy that seemed, to an outsider anyway, at once all-powerful and impossible to understand. In hopes of not getting squashed by the sozzled federal giant it's gotten in bed with, a gambling tribe eager to defend its interests may spend $20,000 a month or more to retain the services of a Washington lobbying firm.

At least, that's the way it looked until the Abramoff story broke in the Post, and the world discovered that the $20,000 figure was for chumps. Several things are striking about the Abramoff story, as it has unfolded in the Post and in the documents released through the Senate investigation. One is the sheer lusciousness of the numbers involved. First-tier lobbying firms in Washington might bill a total of $20 million in fees a year. The Senate committee has reported that Abramoff and his partner Scanlon split as much as $82 million in fees from six tribes over three years. That figure doesn't include the additional millions that Abramoff told tribes to donate to charitable and political organizations. Moreover, these fees were collected during a period when Congress was considering scarcely any Indian-related legislation at all.

And then there is the identity of the people involved. For 25 years Abramoff has been a key figure in the conservative movement that led to the 1994 Republican Revolution, which once promised "to drain the swamp" in Washington, D.C. Abramoff is mentor and close friend to the prominent activist Grover Norquist, and to Ralph Reed, founder of the Christian Coalition, highly successful political operative, and self-advertised adviser to the Bush White House. Both Reed and Norquist, in fact, lead organizations that were recipients of the tribes' generosity, through Abramoff's intercession.

All of these factors combine to make Abramoff's story worth pondering. They also go a long way towards explaining why Republicans in Washington stopped using the term "Beltway Bandits" sometime around 1995.