- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2006

Two things need to be said about the sordid scandal surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff: Most lobbyists aren’t crooks, and most members of Congress are honest.

Maybe this goes without saying, but we need to be reminded of it as the tale unfolds of tainted campaign contributions to buy influence on Capitol Hill and the investigation proceeds to find out who else will be caught in Mr. Abramoff’s deceit, deception and double-dealing.

While Washington lobbying as a profession has become a euphemism for shady practices and influence-peddling, I’ve known it to be a respectable trade, representing the large and varied interests of honest constituencies who want to make sure their views are fully presented in the nation’s capital.

Lobbyists here represent just about everyone, from mail carriers to big oil, from small businesses to the Fortune 500, from nursing homes to giant HMOs, from the homeless to the housing industry, from firearm companies to gun owners. These lobbying organizations were, by and large, begun by honest, hard-working people with collective interests who came together to protect and promote their causes, businesses, livelihood and legal rights.

There are very large, well-heeled lobby forces here that represent the big and the powerful, and modestly funded groups that represent the small and the weak. Individually, their voices are disbursed and unheard. But when they band together, they become a force to be reckoned with in the most powerful centers of the government.

They represent veterans, senior citizens, real estate brokers, bankers, farmers, doctors and nurses — the full panoply of our country’s citizenry.

In most cases, when a lobbyist calls on a lawmaker, the only thing they have to offer are their arguments or grievances for their position on some legislation, regulatory rule or misfortune.

In my business, lobbyists for organizations provide me much valuable information that often doesn’t get reported on the nightly news. Any given week I will talk to lobbyists from dozens of these groups — from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest of all, to privacy-rights groups fighting to protect homeowners from big government seizures under eminent domain.

Having said all this, there is no doubt Congress needs to tighten its act on lobbying practices. What matters now is public perception and it isn’t a pretty picture, even if we only talk about golfing trips, lavish accommodations and free travel and meals. Even if completely above-board, and many details that have come to light are, it doesn’t pass the smell test.

This is an election year and Republican leaders know they must be seen cleaning house to counter the “culture of corruption” campaign offensive the Democrats will flog for all it’s worth in the months to come. Campaign contributions from Mr. Abramoff and his cronies are being returned left and right, but that’s just for starters. Expect reform legislation to be passed relatively quickly in the coming weeks, too.

But the idea the public sees this as just a Republican problem, as the news media seem to play it, is dead wrong.

When The Washington Post/ABC News poll asked voters last month which party was more ethical in political and legislative dealings, both sides received failing grades: 12 percent said Republicans were better and 16 percent said the Democrats. Notably, a whopping 71 percent said there was little if any difference between the two parties.

Meanwhile, we need to keep some of the emerging details in perspective. First, it is not illegal for someone, even a lobbyist, to make a campaign contribution to a member of Congress within the limits set by law. It is not illegal for former members of Congress or staff members to lobby, providing they abide by the time limits before lobbying members of Congress.

It’s also not illegal for lawmakers to attend a charity golf event or some other fund-raising gathering and have their expenses picked up by the sponsoring group, provided they abide by all reporting requirements.

But Mr. Abramoff and his cronies allegedly conspired to bribe officials, obtain kickbacks, defraud clients and, say authorities, got at least one lawmaker to provide their clients a contract or to insert special provisions into legislation.

Yet, as cynical as this story may make some of us feel, let’s remember a good majority of the 535 members of Congress are honest and ethical. And most lobbyists perform an important public service for interest groups they faithfully represent to the highest councils of government.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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