Blogs > Cliopatria > Abramoff and Historical Analogies

Jan 7, 2006 9:48 pm

Abramoff and Historical Analogies

One thing that most struck me in working with the LBJ tapes was the degree to which Johnson thought in historical analogies. On matters political, the press does as well, and it will be interesting to see how the Abramoff scandal gets framed over the coming weeks. There seem to me three options:

--the House bank scandal. Bruce Bartlett made the case six weeks ago that this analogy would work best for Democrats, but I'm dubious. More than a decade after its revelation, the scandal remains one of the more curious affairs in American political history—a perk that was impossible to defend politically, but hardly an event that should rank high in the annals of improper congressional conduct. And even Bartlett terms the scandal an example of"petty corruption." If the Republicans can frame the Abramoff case as one of petty corruption, they're in pretty good shape.

--Abscam. This is the analogy I suspect we'll hear the most about, though I'm not sure it's wholly on-point. While an extraordinary breach of the public trust, Abscam seems to me a public corruption case: members of Congress took money in exchange for performing services, but the effect on broader public policy was negligible. (Philadelphia congressman Ozzie Myers, a product of the Rizzo machine, uttered on tape the scandal's most memorable line--that in Congress,"Money talks, bullshit walks.") This comparison, of course, wouldn't be good for the Republicans--1 senator and 6 congressmen were convicted as a result of the probe--but the reaction to Abscam didn't have a long-lasting political effect, either.

--the scandals of the 1920s. Teapot Dome is the best-known of these, which featured not only bribery but also a series of scandals revolving around excessive campaign contributions and improper corporate access to the levers of congressional policymaking. Two events of the 1920s strike me as directly relevant to the lessons of the Abramoff case. (1) The cases of William Vare (PA) and Frank Smith (IL), who won election to the Senate in 1926 but were denied their seats for flagrantly violating their states' (weak) campaign finance laws; (2) The case of Connecticut senator Hiram Bingham, who was formally censured by the Senate for placing a lobbyist from the Connecticut Association of Manufacturers on his Senate staff during the closed markup sessions on the Smoot-Hawley taff. Bingham ingeniously defended his action by claiming that the lobbyist was not"trying to get [colleagues] to do something they did not want to do," but was merely reflecting the mindset of the pro-business committee.

The 1920s scandals strike me as the most appropriate analogy for the kind of abuses we've seen with Abramoff.

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Andre Mayer - 1/9/2006

It's interesting that this isn't primarily a bribery scandal -- you don't hear a lot of outrage that Native American casinos are corrupting Congress. Scandals like Credit Mobilier reflected changes in economic culture, but this one concerns a change in political culture. The ideological super-partisan lobbyist Abramoff corresponds to the ideological super-partisan politician DeLay. This may be about "how business is done" in Washington, but the "business" in question is politics.

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