The Magazine

Abramoff and His New Pals

Rehabilitation, Washington style.

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Today Abramoff is less skeptical of government power. He proposes to ban political contributions from lobbyists, contractors, and all those taking public dollars. He wants a lifetime ban on lobbying by elected officials and their staff. Having already sullied the conservative movement with his vulgar thievery, he is now saying the only way to stop people like him is to restrict political speech and further regulate the interactions between representatives and those they represent.

We have progressed so far in exiling the language of morality from politics that it never seems to occur to the likes of Abramoff that what is needed is a sense of decency and shame. The right to petition the government for  a redress of grievances—the right to lobby—is embedded in the Bill of Rights not to protect lucrative consulting contracts but to ensure that no faction or interest predominates in government. But this right presupposes that individuals will try to act justly, behave honestly, and keep in mind the common good. The widespread belief that everyone in politics is a crook has become an explanation and an excuse for self-dealing. Yet the Jack Abramoff scandal would never have happened if those involved had been able to distinguish right from wrong and had acted as if the distinction mattered.

Tinker with the rules that determine the relations between government and the influential all you want. As long as Congress and the regulatory agencies insert themselves into every nook and cranny of American life, individuals and firms will try to protect their interests and influence outcomes. It’s revealing that Abramoff, in his new guise as public scold, does not emphasize the connection between the size and scope of government and the growth of the lobbying industry. In a system where government was limited to its enumerated powers, and where citizens and their representatives aspired to virtue, the list of Abramoff’s potential clients would be short. There would be few opportunities for him to use the government to lie, cheat, and steal—and pretend to instruct the rest of us how to live after he is caught.

Matthew Continetti is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard and author of The K Street Gang (2006).

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