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The Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal is the worst case of government corruption to hit Washington in decades, according to experts participating in a Kennedy School of Government Forum.
Abramoff and several associates have pled guilty to felony charges, and other indictments, some possibly targeting members of Congress, may be forthcoming as the investigation continues.
“This is not business as usual,” said Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. “What makes this different is it’s not just a few bad apples. It’s that people at the top decided to build in a kind of systemic corrupt process. That is different from what we had before.”
But while the panelists agreed that the relationship between lobbyists and politicians may be the core of the problem, journalists also have failed in their responsibility to monitor what goes on in Washington.
“I don’t think we’ve done nearly a good enough job tracking the money in Washington and the influence it buys in concrete terms,” said Ken Cooper, a veteran newspaper reporter and current fellow at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics (IOP).
“The fact that this was going on was kind of known,” said Dotty Lynch, who covered politics for CBS News for 20 years and is also now an IOP fellow. “I blame the press as well as the rest of the players in the institution for not doing something earlier.”
Then there is the amount of money needed to put candidates into office in the first place.
“It has to come back to the amount of money in campaigns,” Lynch said. “Ultimately you’ve got to look at how else are people going to raise this kind of money, and what are you going to do if you have to raise two, three, four million dollars or more on a Congressional campaign.”
Dennis Thompson, founding director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics, agreed. “The root of the problem is money and campaign finance,” he said. But Thompson said reform shouldn’t be discouraged simply because methods of getting around new rules will always be found. “It is a constant struggle,” he said. “There is a loophole, you close it. That’s to be expected. That’s the politics of reform.”
But can the Democrats capitalize politically on the scandal in the November Congressional elections?
“One of the problems the Democrats have is this perception that ‘everybody does it,’” said Lynch. The Democrats are trying to make it a Republican scandal, she said, but current polling shows Americans think both parties are at fault.
However, the panelists agreed that the notion of “ethics in Washington” has not yet become a complete oxymoron.
“Those of us who lived in Washington whether as journalists or as politicians or as lobbyists [know that] many are good, honest, people of great integrity and great concern for the public interest,” Lynch said.
The panel was moderated by Jeanne Shaheen, IOP director and former governor of New Hampshire. A video archive of the event can be viewed at the IOP website (www.iop.harvard.edu).