Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff

The former lobbyist and author of Capitol Punishment weighs in on money in politics and this year’s U.S. Supreme Court campaign finance decisions.

At one time, Jack Abramoff was one of the most successful and prominent lobbyists in the U.S. But, his activities as a Washington power player landed him in federal prison, and, since serving his time, he’s been determined to help end the corruption of the system he played so well. Abramoff began his political career as an undergrad at Brandeis, where he helmed the Massachusetts’ College Republican group and was elected as national chair. He honed his skills as head of President Reagan's grassroots lobbying organization and, after a stint as a film producer, built a prestigious and profitable lobbying practice. He told his story in the memoir, Capitol Punishment.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: According to almost every poll out there, faith in our political institutions is at an all-time low these days. The most recent case in point, the Gallup Poll conducted less than a month ago has Congress’s approval rating at 16%.

That’s on pace now to be the lowest ever for a midterm election year. No doubt, the dissatisfaction is driven in part, I suspect, by the perception that special interest and big money are calling the shots.

Joining me now to talk about ethics and politics, Jack Abramoff who, before his fall from grace, was considered perhaps the most powerful lobbyist in all of Washington. Jack Abramoff, good to have you back on this program.

Jack Abramoff: Thanks for having me, Tavis.

Tavis: I think most of us know the backstory of what happened some years ago and the sentencing to prison and your serving time and coming out. As you look back on that period now, without coloring the question too much, what do you make of your life then?

Abramoff: Well, I think my life then was basically enmeshed in the Washington sort of power structure and what goes on in Washington, and I have great regret that I allowed myself to get in there.

But having been in there, I was able to see from at least the inside what some of the problems are. I didn’t realize they were problems, unfortunately, for me at that time, but I’ve been working since to try to turn some of them around.

Tavis: And how difficult has it been to try for you to get traction on turning those issues around?

Abramoff: Well, I think most people – you know, I speak every week. I’m out speaking somewhere around the country and I do as much media as I can. I think most people believe that indeed that I’m sincere in trying to want to turn things around.

The problem is turning things around. It’s a very difficult ship to actually turn around, the ship of state in America, and every time we come up with some ideas to do it, it seems that the intrinsic establishment doesn’t want to happen. So they have fight it, and that’s the difficulty.

Tavis: So since you were last on this program, after getting out and writing your book, a number of things have happened, to be sure, but there are two things that come to mind immediately since I last saw you in person on this set. The obvious, Citizens United. So the Supreme Court basically says that corporations are people.

And then you have this McCutcheon case which basically says you can give the maximum contribution to as many individuals, as many parties, as many packs, as you want. So there is no limit on, you know, how many people or entities you can give to.

So the lid basically is off. The money is getting darker. It’s coming from all around the world. There’s no way to track where it’s coming from. What do you make of the changes vis-à-vis campaign finance that are basically now being written and codified into law that makes this ship of state even harder to turn, it seems?

Abramoff: Well, you know, I have a couple of observations on that. First of all, I had been involved in politics since the 70s and federal politics since the 70s.

I don’t ever remember an election when big money wanted to get in that they couldn’t get in. There were always loopholes. There were always different kinds of organizations. There were always Supreme Court cases or Congressional bills.

So I don’t ever remember in my entire existence having an example of a corporation or an individual who wanted to put a lot of money in some way who couldn’t find a way to get that money in.

I’ve focused instead of how do we limit the money for everybody to get in on how do we limit the special interest money. ‘Cause that’s really the problem anyway.

The problem isn’t somebody who’s patriotic or believes in something, living somewhere and doesn’t want to go and influence the Congress for what they want. The problem is the people who want something back. These people aren’t giving a lot of this kind of money unless they want something back.

So what I’ve tried to do is focus the efforts not on trying to go headlong against the Supreme Court, which I don’t think will work at least now with this court, but rather focus something where the right and the left can agree, which the people shouldn’t be able to bribe their legislators. They shouldn’t be able to use their money to get goodies back.

So I think that keeping focused on that, obviously it’s a big fight to get them to agree to it, the legislators, but that’s where I’ve sort of tried to hold…

Tavis: Well, there are a couple of things you said now that I want to pick apart. One is, I hear people laughing when you made that comment about people don’t want legislators to be bribed. I think you’re right about that, but that’s what people define lobbyists as these days…

Abramoff: Of course. That’s exactly what’s going on.

Tavis: I mean, lobbyists are the ultimate bribers, if I can make a word…

Abramoff: Yeah, right.

Tavis: They’re the ultimate bribe artists in Washington. So you say that they ought not to be bribed. Well, are you really suggesting that we should just do away with lobbying?

Abramoff: No. I don’t think we should do away with lobbying. Lobbying’s fine. We should do away…

Tavis: But lobbying isn’t fine.

Abramoff: Well, no, no. Lobbying is petitioning the government, okay? That is part of the Constitution. That’s perfectly good. People should be able to lobby. People should be able to hire people to help them lobby in the same way we hire people to help us go to court.

Tavis: Okay.

Abramoff: We can’t figure out the laws in a court, so we hire a lawyer to help take us to court. The problem is, when a lobbyist or their clients, the special interests, give money in that process, give resources in the process, take them to dinner, take them to play golf, give them campaign contributions, that is where that process becomes polluted. That’s what we need to attack, not the lobbyists per se.

Because, by the way, of the 30,000 lobbyists that are out there, you’re probably talking about 1,000 who are the real problems here. The rest of them don’t have the resources. They don’t have the clients or the money. But the folks who put the money into the system because they want something back, the lobbyists and the special interests, those are the people we have to target and end.

Tavis: To your earlier point that you don’t want to waste your time, at least, going after a Supreme Court, particularly a court right now that seems impenetrable when it comes to these kinds of issues, sadly for some of us – or unpersuadable to use another word.

But give me your assessment, though, specifically on those two pieces of, I think now, seminal legislation or at least seminal Supreme Court decisions. One, being Citizens United and the other being the McCutcheon issue. What do you think of those decisions, whether or not you want to fight the court on them?

Abramoff: Right. I have mixed views on them.

Tavis: Okay. Tell me why.

Abramoff: On the one hand, I’m certainly in favor of free speech. I personally believe that speech is not just words that come out of our mouths, but maybe where our bodies go, signs we hold up and continuing, continuing to perhaps how we use our money. I do personally believe that.

I also believe, by the way, that an individual has rights and groups of individuals, whether they’re called churches, whether their called organizations or whatever they’re called, also have rights. So there are components of those decisions I personally agree with.

The problem is – and my problem with the decisions – is I don’t believe the Justices because none of them are politicians. None of them are elected officials; none of them have been in the process.

I don’t think they understand what money does in this system and I think they’re looking at it really in a rarified kind of ivory tower way to say that, well, it’s not really corrupting the system and it’s not sufficiently corrupting the system, and I think they’re wrong.

They don’t see what’s happening on the ground and, as a consequence, the decision which has components I agree with as a whole creates a bigger problem. Again, not a problem that I personally believe we’re going to solve by going right at that problem, but rather a problem that is creating a real difficulty for America.

Tavis: I think you’re being somewhat charitable and generous. These nine Justices are some of the brightest people. They may be wrong half the time, at least five of them, but they’re some of the brightest people in the country or they would not be serving, respectfully, on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Of course, I don’t think they’re so stuck on stupid that they don’t get that and they have cases argued before them to give them the answers to stuff they don’t know. I think there’s politics involved in here. That’s another conversation for another time.

But even if I, for the sake of argument, concede to you that they don’t get it because they’ve never been in the process as elected officials, people in Congress do get it.

Abramoff: Right.

Tavis: They do get it and they still don’t want to do anything about it.

Abramoff: That’s exactly right.

Tavis: So what do you make of that?

Abramoff: Well, I think it’s pretty bold-faced obvious to us that these are people who benefit from the perquisites of money and power. These are people who are easily going out raising contributions from people who want something from them and don’t consider it to be a problem.

These are people who I’ve wined and dined. I used to do it myself. I owned restaurants where they came and they ate. I owned an airplane where I took them to go play golf. And they don’t want to end that oligarch lifestyle that they lead.

So anything that’s real reform, Tavis, they don’t want to see it because they don’t want to leave this lifestyle. They want to go from that lifestyle to becoming a lobbyist. That’s where 90% of the people I lobbied wanted to go. They wanted to work for me for much more money and much more power.

Tavis: I’m glad you raised that because this is a continuing problem. Barack Obama, when he ran, said he would stop this. He’s failed miserably at this. I’m not just demonizing him.

Every president before him has said they were going to do something – not everybody, but some of them said they were going to do things and they haven’t. But he’s obviously the guy in the office right now. He’s failed miserably at this.

He said he would stop that revolving door. It hasn’t happened. People are still going into the administration. They come out and they go right back into lobbying. How do we stop that revolving door in the Washington political circle?

Abramoff: Well, it’s very simple. The president could actually just make a rule that nobody from his administration and anybody who signs up, takes a job, takes a government paycheck, could ever become a lobbyist again. He could very easily do that. The Congress could do the same thing. They don’t want to do that. I think the president probably wanted to do something about this.

I, by the way, have an argument between half the revolving door and the rest of the sort of reform community. I don’t believe it’s a problem somebody coming from the lobbying world into an administration assuming, by the way, they don’t get a big payoff like Jacob Lew and others got to come and work in government because we all know what that is.

But if somebody’s coming from being a lobbyist and has expertise into the administration, I’m okay with that. But they can’t go from there back to the lobbying world. They can’t cash in. That’s the big problem and that, unfortunately, is where most of the corruption lies.

Tavis: And we should be clear that both Republican and Democrat…

Abramoff: Absolutely. Everybody’s doing this.

Tavis: So speaking of Barack Obama, what about this other issue? There are people who voted for him the first time around because, let’s be frank about it, he had the best track record of anybody I’ve seen in a long time on real meaningful campaign finance reform.

The only issue, frankly, that he had been consistent about in the Illinois State Senate was on the issue of campaign finance reform. Then the Supreme Court gives the Citizens United decision.

He berates them on the floor of Congress in his State of the Union speech, but then a year later turns around and starts taking the money because he says I can’t compete with Romney if I don’t do what Romney does even though I criticized the Supreme Court for doing this. So the guy we thought was going to finally reform this did a 180 on it.

So the question I’m raising is, if you can’t depend on the guy in the White House who’s running for office to tell you I’m gonna do this and stick by it, if you can’t depend on Congress to do it, the Supreme Court, the other branch of government – they got all three of them now – has made its case very clear, what agency do the people have to ultimately get some real meaningful campaign finance reform?

Abramoff: Well, the only power the people have ultimately is to vote people out of office. They can’t necessarily vote a president out once he’s there. He’s there for four years. But every two years, they can vote their Congressman out.

So I’ve been working with some groups to formulate an approach so that we can start going after these Congressmen who are against these kind of reforms. The truth is, until some of them lose their seats and until a lot of them lose their seats, they aren’t gonna take it seriously.

Tavis: And that approach is what?

Abramoff: Well, basically to create a perfect bill – perfect as much as perfect can be in the Washington context – that limits the ability or eliminates the ability of lobbyists and special interests to give money that eliminates the ability to have that revolving door go from government into the lobbying sector. And there’s a few other things like who is a lobbyist? That’s also a question mark.

Newt Gingrich ran for president and said he was a history professor when he was, in fact, a lobbyist. So that kind of definition has got to be changed. Again, by the way, it’s not just Newt Gingrich. They’re on the right, they’re on the left, everybody’s doing this.

Real serious change, a bill of real serious change, and going out there in our view taking six districts in the first election, targeting them. Let the whole country target these districts, get six of these folks defeated. Go back the next time, 25 of them defeated. And then and only then will they start paying attention.

These guys don’t care about I’m not gonna get enough money from these companies or this or that because there’s plenty of money to give them. What they care about is their seat. Losing their election is the end of their political life. They don’t want to see that. We have to deliver the end of their political life or we’re not going to get them to treat this seriously.

Tavis: Is this political cesspool so contaminated that it can’t be cleaned? Have we reached the point of no return where the money has just corrupted the system, that big business owns and controls everything in Washington? They’re all bought and bossed.

I mean, I’m just wondering whether or not the train has left the station and there ain’t no way to ever get it back.

Abramoff: I don’t believe that. I think there are actually ways to get it back, but it’s going to really require everybody who’s hearing this broadcast and, frankly, everybody who believes this. I think what most of the 300 million Americans believe is what we’re talking about. It’s only people inside the Beltway who don’t.

And it’s going to take them getting active, getting focused, and defeating these guys until they get the message. Once they get the message, I think we can turn it around.

Tavis: I’m glad you’re doing the work you’re doing these days, and I’m honored to have you back on this program.

Abramoff: Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: Thank you, Jack.

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Last modified: July 9, 2014 at 4:13 pm