By any serious definition of the word, Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff is a rat. His decision to enter guilty pleas Tuesday to three felony counts of defrauding his own clients merely added a personal acknowledgement of the fact to the official record. Frank Clemente, the director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch, summed things up succinctly, and accurately, when he said Tuesday: "Make no mistake about it: Abramoff is a crook."
In Washington, more so than in most places, it remains true that there is no honor among thieves -- nor among rats.
So the notion that Abramoff will now rat out his former associates, including Republican members of the House and Senate, is not a particularly difficult one to comprehend -- even for conservatives commentators who are generally unwilling to admit even the slightest signs of shakiness in the Republican infrastructure. Radio ranter Rush Limbaugh was already warning his listeners on Tuesday about the "A-bomb" that is expected to explode when Abramoff starts cooperating with Justice Department investigations of members of Congress. Limbaugh suggested that the scandal will become "a modern-day version of term limits" that potentially could do more damage to Republicans than the increasingly widespread public discontent with the unwavering support most GOP members of Congress have given to the Bush administration's failed Iraq policies.
There is no question that the potential for damage to GOP political prospects from the Abramoff scandal -- with its deliciously detailed evidence of bribery, influence peddling, pay-to-play politics and sweeping abuses of the public trust -- is great. Between 2001 and 2004, close to 220 members of Congress collected more than $1.7 million in political contributions from Abramoff and the lobbyist's associates and clients. More than 200 of those members still serve in the House, and the vast majority of them are Republicans.
But the difference between the potential that fallout from the scandal could loosen the GOP's grip on the House and Senate and the reality of a transforming "throw-the-bums-out" vote in 2006 remains significant. While Clemente says that the scandal "is likely to take down a number of members of Congress and members of their staffs," the precise number has yet to be established. And if it is limited merely to those members of Congress that Abramoff's testimony places in the prosecutorial crosshairs, then both chambers could well remain in Republican hands.
To be sure, some of the members of Congress who have been most closely linked with Abramoff, a former elected chairman of the College Republicans who counts among his longtime associates people like Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist and former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed, will have a very hard time getting reelected -- if they even choose to run.
That list is topped by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, whose onetime aide, Michael Scanlon, was Abramoff's primary partner in crime. Like Abramoff, Scanlon is cooperating with the investigation and it is hard to imagine that DeLay's name won't be among the first to come up. Already under indictment for campaign abuses in Texas, DeLay faces a serious challenge from former Democratic Representative Nick Lampson, who this week filed the necessary paperwork to make the race. Lampson's campaigning as a bipartisan reformer in a district that is now one of the more competitive in Texas, and the Abramoff scandal will give him a great deal of ammunition.
Even more vulnerable than DeLay at this point is Ohio Republican Bob Ney, who for some time has been identified as "Representative No. 1" in the Abramoff investigation. Ney is in big trouble. The chairman of the House Administration Committee, he already stands accused of accepting overseas trips, gifts and hefty campaign donations from Abramoff, allegedly in exchange for using his position to advance the interests of the Indian tribes and casinos that were among the lobbyist's big-ticket clients. If Abramoff lays out the dirty details of his relationship with Ney, Republicans will start pushing for the congressman to drop his reelection bid.
Montana Senator Conrad Burns, who accepted $150,000 in campaign contributions from the lobbyist's operation and helped an Abramoff client score a $3 million federal grant, is the most vulnerable senator. Burns has just announced that he will return the money he took from Abramoff and the lobbyist's clients and associates, but that's not going to be enough to get the senator off the hook legally -- or politically. Up for reelection this year, he has suffered a damaging drop in the polls since details of the scandal have begun to dominate media in Montana, which was already trending in a Democratic direction before the scandal surfaced.
Several other prominent Republicans are now likely, because of their associations with Abramoff, to face more serious challenges in 2006 than had previously been expected. They include: House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, who collected more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff's firm and clients between 2001 and 2004 and in 2003 urged Interior Secretary Gail Norton to favor the lobbyist's clients in an Indian-gaming dispute; House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, who accepted more than $10,000 from Abramoff's firm and clients between 2001 and 2004, and who intervened at least three times in matters involving those clients; and California Representative Dana Rohrabacher, who accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Abramoff and turned up as a financial reference for the lobbyist's purchase of a casino cruise line. Dozens of Republican House members, including vulnerable incumbents such as Connecticut's Bob Simmons, have banked direct contributions from Abramoff.
The extent to which the Abramoff scandal is of political significance in 2006 will depend on just how many of those members who accepted contributions from the lobbyist and his associates and clients are implicated in the Justice Department investigation. If the numbers move into the double digits, this scandal could pose a genuine threat to GOP control of the House. But it is important to remember that there are Democrats who have Abramoff problems, as well, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who appears to have collected more than $65,000 in Abramoff-linked contributions between 2001 and 2004.
If a desire to protect Reid and other Democratic recipients of the lobbyist's largesse causes the opposition party to pull its punches, Democrats will gain no more ground as a result of this scandal than it did from the Enron imbroglio. Thus, the ultimate question does not boil down to what Abramoff will reveal. Rather, it is this: Will Democrats hold every member of Congress who has been implicated to account. If Democrats are smart, they will recognize that this is, at its core, a Republican scandal. And they will say: Throw all the bums out -- just as Republican Newt Gingrich did in the early 1990s when several Republican House members were linked with scandals that generally involved Democrats. Only by being genuine in their commitment to clean up Congress will Democrats turn the Abramoff scandal fully to their advantage. And, as everyone in Washington knows, it has been a long time since Democrats were that genuine -- or that smart politically.