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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
“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
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
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
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
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