The argument that I’ve heard and seen repeatedly against passage of a ban on expensive gifts from lobbyists comes down to this:
“If we try to limit lobbyist gifts, they’ll just go underground and keep doing it anyway. The best thing we can do is simply require them to report the gifts and leave it up to voters to decide whether the gift-taking is excessive.”
It’s a curious argument, especially coming from people who assure us that our elected representatives here in Georgia are generally good, ethical people. Boiled to its cynical essence, the argument tells us that our elected representatives are so addicted to free trips, meals, golf junkets and sports tickets that they’ll accept them even if it means breaking the law.
So rather than make them outlaws, we should allow the practice to continue?
Maybe you find that line of argument reassuring. I don’t. But if you want to find an expert on the subject, I suggest that you listen to Jack Abramoff, who was one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington until his excesses landed him in federal prison, and is now describing how things worked.
“I think that people are under the impression that the corruption only involves somebody handing over a check and getting a favor,” Abramoff has said in media interviews. “And that’s not the case. The corruption — the bribery call it, because ultimately that’s what it is. … I’m talking about giving a gift to somebody who makes a decision on behalf of the public. At the end of the day that’s really what bribery is. But it’s done every day.”
Take, for example, the sad case of state Rep. Kip Smith, the Republican from Columbus who was arrested last week on drunk driving charges after leaving a Buckhead restaurant. According to lobbyist disclosure forms, Smith had been “entertained” by lobbyists on at least four of the previous five evenings, and I’d be willing to bet that the conversations at those late-night dinners did not delve deeply into legislative minutiae. In fact, as the story linked above documents, Smith has accepted almost $10,000 in lobbyist gifts since arriving in the Legislature two years ago.
Abramoff got in trouble for, among other things, taking congressmen and staff on an all-expense-paid golf outing to Scotland. He also showered Congress with tickets to sporting events, meals and other gifts — or bribes, to use his term.
“Most congressmen don’t feel they’re being bought,” he said. “Most congressmen can in their own mind justify — rationalize — the system. And by the way, we wanted, as lobbyists, to have them feel that way.”
But here’s the thing: The behavior that turned into a major scandal in Washington is perfectly legal and seemingly acceptable here in Georgia. There is no real difference between the Scotland golfing junket that Abramoff arranged and the lobbyist-funded European vacation for House Speaker David Ralston and his family, except for the fact that one was considered illegal and unethical and another is considered perfectly fine.
As Abramoff puts it, “the great tragedy in American politics is what is legal, not what is illegal.” If you want that to change, you have to speak up.
– Jay Bookman