Capitol Punishment

For at least eighty years, the most consistent urge in Washington has been to accumulate power and sanctimoniously proclaim you are doing so for the good of the nation. Sometimes it’s true. More often it’s not. But regardless of whether one is using power for good or ill, the potential for corruption is always present, as I painfully learned. – Jack Abramoff

After a wildly successful career as one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, Jack Abramoff spent 3 ½ years in federal prison on charges of fraud and corruption. In 2010 he emerged from prison deeply humbled and penitent, was reunited with his family, and wrote a book about his experience called Capitol Punishment.

Prior to reading Abramoff’s book, I knew little about lobbyists beyond their generally negative connotation. In one of my favorite movies, The American President, a widowed Democratic President (Michael Douglas) hooks up with a liberal lobbyist (Annette Bening) during an election year, which gives his conservative opponent all the mud he could hope to throw during the campaign. Somehow I got the idea that lobbyists were generally liberal, so I was surprised to discover that plenty of lobbyists are conservative as well. One of them was Jack Abramoff, former national president of the College Republicans and fan of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and the Tea Party.

Strange as it might sound for a convicted felon, Abramoff is an observant Jew and holds to a strict set of values. In prison, he was offended by many inmates’ porn collections. At one private White House dinner, he quietly refused to eat because the meal wasn’t kosher. He made millions of dollars and donated a huge portion of his income to various charities and individuals in need. However, over the course of his career, he gradually allowed himself to get sucked into the corruption around him, rationalizing questionable or illegal activities as being necessary to win and justified because they helped him donate more money to his charitable causes. It brought to mind the old cliché about boiling frogs. To boil a frog, you don’t throw him into boiling water. You put him in cold water and gradually turn up the heat.

For me, the most fascinating part of the book was its window into the lobbying business. Although the potential for corruption is overwhelming, the concept is simple and logical. Organizations hire lobbyists to influence legislators. As Abramoff lays out in Capitol Punishment, let’s say your organization (company, union, church, club) is threatened by a bill that’s floating around in Congress. If passed, this bill would destroy your organization. As the leader of the group, here are your choices:

  1. Cross your fingers, pray, and hope for the best.
  2. Resign yourself to defeat and shut down.
  3. Set up your own grassroots and/or online campaign against the bill via petitions, Facebook/Twitter, blogging, email, and other means.
  4. Move to Washington and “rush about Capitol Hill full time telling anyone who will listen that this bill is a bad idea”.
  5. Hire a lobbyist who knows how Congress works and has the connections you need to stop the bill.

Corruption potential aside, hiring a lobbyist is not that different from hiring a realtor to help you sell your house, a lawyer to represent you in a lawsuit, or an accountant to represent you in an IRS audit. You’re hiring an expert in a field to do something you can’t do yourself. If you need something done in Washington and have deep pockets, lobbying might be the most effective way to achieve your goal.

Unfortunately, despite all the laws that Congress passes to “fight” corruption and limit the influence of lobbyists, legislation is still a dirty, dirty business. Favors get traded for favors, free meals/trips/tickets get traded for votes, Congressional staffers get jobs with lobbying firms and vice versa, and weird riders get attached to unrelated bills because the right person was on the right committee at the right time and played golf with the right lobbyist who knew just the right thing to say to get Senator Mucketymuck onboard. Just like with term limits or campaign finance reform, how can we expect the members of Congress to pass bills that limit their own power, income, benefits, and influence? And with so many paying clients, why should the lobbyists turn down millions in fees simply because their business has a bad reputation? And why should the clients stop doing what it takes to legally fight for their own interests?

Abramoff did a pretty good job with the book itself. He tells a clear, compelling story full of insight, irony, and detail. He does admit several times that many of his actions were wrong, and I believe he’s sincere. As a husband and father, I did feel for the guy as he described spending his last few months with his wife and five children before he left for prison, knowing he would miss most of the next few years of their lives. As some reviewers have noted, the book does have a self-congratulatory tone in some places and a condescending one in others, particularly when he describes his time in prison with other prisoners who clearly “had different work ethics”. But overall I greatly enjoyed the book and learned something from it.

If you’re looking for a book to restore your faith in the integrity of the government, this isn’t the one. But if you want to learn more about how legislation and lobbying really work in Washington and some interesting ideas for reform, or a cautionary tale for how money and power and ambition can corrupt a moral person, Capitol Punishment is worth your time.