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Money Motivations

Russ Baker

January 31, 2006

Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker is a longtime contributor to TomPaine.com. He is the founder of the Real News Project, a new organization dedicated to producing groundbreaking investigative journalism. He can be reached at russ@russbaker.com. 

“Everybody does it.” That’s what we used to tell mom and dad when we’d been caught misbehaving. Sometimes it worked, but often it didn’t—perhaps because we didn’t have a sophisticated spin machine and the gullible U.S. media to reliably back us up.

Fortunately, the GOP leadership is getting a big assist from the media as it struggles to contain the damage from the sprawling Abramoff corruption scandal. As noted by Paul Krugman in Monday’s New York Times (and earlier by Frank Rich), numerous major news organizations have helped by incorrectly labeling this a bipartisan problem.

Krugman cites as examples the “Today” show’s Katie Couric and the ombudsman of The Washington Post , but there are plenty of others willing to enable the spin. Not to be outdone by Couric in proving "fairness" by getting the story wrong, her colleague Matt Lauer noted on Friday that “34 percent of the money—not from Abramoff, but from his associates and clients—went to Democrats.” Then he turned to Tim Russert and asked, “[C]an Democrats wash their hands of this?” Russert, the sometimes-tough questioner, punted.

After noting that “the personal money of Abramoff went only to Republicans,” Russert added:

 [T]he issue is broad and wide. Democrats also understand that they accept trips from lobbyists and meals and so forth, and that’s why in order to reform all this, it has to be a bipartisan approach. But Democrats get raging mad when you suggest this is a bipartisan scandal.

Here, Russert was conflating the Abramoff scandal with the general, if problematic (and, at the moment, legal) practice of accepting free trips for “educational purposes.” Two days later, on "Meet the Press," a tougher Russert asked GOP Senate leader Bill Frist why he had returned money he got from Abramoff. Frist dismissed it as "tainted money," then used that powerful platform to reverse the guns, attacking his Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid, for having “received over $60,000” and noting that Reid’s former legislative counsel “is now working for Team Abramoff.”

So, who else was part of Team Abramoff, the group that worked with the lobbyist during his tenure at two different D.C. firms? The Washington Post published a chart titled, “Who Is Team Abramoff?”, which shows “individuals [who] lobbied for tribal clients of Jack Abramoff and, along with some of their spouses, contributed money to politicians.” Many of them are identified as Democrats or former staffers for Democrats.

But what does this mean? Is it surprising that a lobbying firm employed both Democrats and Republicans? Of course not. More importantly, almost all of the key figures in Abramoff’s inner circle are both Republican and closely tied to DeLay and the GOP leadership.

What pundits are overlooking is that the malfeasance at the center of the scandal is not the practice of lawmakers lobbying for American Indian tribes per se. Many Indian causes would be welcomed by the general population if they were properly explained—educational improvements, economic opportunity and such. And even some causes advocated by American Indian tribes that aren't always popular or socially desirable—such as gambling—not surprisingly receive support from politicians with significant American Indian constituencies.

In fact, the “big two” Democrats targeted by the GOP—Harry Reid and Byron Dorgan—come from sparsely populated states where American Indians make up a disproportionate share of the population. You’d expect Senators Reid and Dorgan to regularly support legislation that benefited tribes.

But what about Abramoff’s Republican House buddies? Prior to their "conversions" to "friend of the Indian tribe," Tom DeLay, Bob Ney and company were essentially as uninterested in American Indian concerns as in the rights of most communities of color.

As for connecting Democratic-identified lobbyists with “Team Abramoff,” you have to ask: How many were involved with American Indians before Abramoff? We know that the Republican lobbyists began working for tribal interests only after Abramoff began getting lucrative contracts; indeed, these lobbyists migrated over from GOP legislative offices that had no history of support for tribal concerns.  Not illegal, but it certainly looks like a direct buy—straight quid pro quo —rather than a case of building on preexisting sympathies.

The GOP, in a patently obvious ploy, is taking something absolutely normal in Washington—lobbying on behalf of a legitimate constituency—and tying it to an extraordinary influence-peddling operation. The latter involved asking previously unsympathetic parties in Congress to essentially reverse themselves with a wink and muffled laugh for personal gain—all-expenses-paid junkets, free fancy meals, campaign contributions. 

The real, and only, question has to be: Did anybody change a vote or do something for money they wouldn’t ordinarily do? If Dorgan and Reid voted and legislated in the way they always have—Dorgan, in particular, has been a big backer of tribal concerns since he first arrived in Washington—then there’s no significance to an indirect Abramoff connection, or to taking any individual’s or institution’s money. Dorgan has been fighting to improve conditions in Indian schools since day one.  

In short, to keep clear about what matters in this scandal, you have to remember that it’s not who or what that counts, it’s why. Why did a particular elected official support particular legislation? Why did a lobbyist take on a particular client, and vice-versa?

Basically, Jack Abramoff was doing two things: (1) massively overbilling tribes he admitted to loathing (see those internal e-mail memos); (2) partially earning his keep by giving things of value to his buddies on Capitol Hill so they would support tribe-favored legislation they would not otherwise have backed.  

Bottom line: The question is not whether any legislator has ever accepted money from any Indian tribe. It’s not even whether an ex-aide to a legislator began lobbying for a tribe that gave money to that legislator.  All that matters is cause and effect. That’s something any journalist ought to understand. And once journalists get that straight, even the public might understand what this is: an overwhelmingly Republican scandal.



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