Let’s Listen To Reformers Buddy Roemer and, Yes, Jack Abramoff

Buddy Roemer

Presidential candidate Buddy Roemer and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff argue that reform of influence-peddling must be radical to save the country. Roemer, for example, refuses to take contributions over $100. GOP leaders used his lack of big-dollar fund-raising as an excuse to keep him out of all 23 Presidential debates.

Too often, Roemer and Abramoff are thus ignored or disparaged despite their obvious relevant experience — and their eloquent, entertaining and otherwise effective speaking-style that matches a national mood of “Throw the Rascals Out.”

The specifics of their messages deserve a wide audience, as shown by their compelling arguments during a joint appearance last week in the nation’s capital.

“The nation is in trouble,” said Roemer, now a grandfather and successful banker. He spoke to a standing-room audience of 120 convened on March 22 by the non-partisan Committee for the Republic.

“I don’t think the answer is the Republican Party,” said the former two-term governor of Louisiana, who became a Republican in 1991 and returned to politics last year after a 16-year absence. Earlier, he served four terms as a Democratic congressman beginning in the 1980, running unopposed in his last three races.

“And,” he continued, “I don’t think the answer is the Democratic Party.” He says both parties are controlled by special interests and political action committees (PACs), whose checks he has refused to take since his first race three decades ago.

Abramoff, who published a book late last year following a prison sentence for lobbying abuses, concurs in the need for radical reforms. His six-point plan would change Washington culture drastically by forbidding office-holders from accepting even a cup of coffee.

Also, he would ban them after leaving office from ever working for a broadly defined “influence” industry. “As the federal government has assumed more and more power,” Abramoff argues, “these problems have intensified. So we have special interests who not only know how to help their clients, but to hurt others.”

Similarly, Roemer cited as an example how consumers are hurt because the United States pharmaceutical industry is protected by law from price competition from Canadian rivals, thanks in significant part to the influence of his former Louisiana congressional colleague, Billy Tauzin, once chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Roemer said he recently encountered Tauzin at an airport:

Billy’s a great guy and a good friend who I served with in Congress. But I remember: Billy worked all those years on the Energy Committee and regulated pharmaceuticals and he quit his office one day — and the next day was being paid $2 million [per year in compensation] to represent the pharmaceutical industry. You know, the pharmaceutical industry in Obamacare is protected from Canadian competition. Did you know they’re protected by law from price discounts?

The big knock on Roemer is that he lacks high poll numbers and name recognition, doubtless because GOP debate-organizers excluded him. Yet he was doing better in certain key criteria than some other candidates invited repeatedly for nationally broadcast debates. Roemer concluded that his basic problem was that GOP chieftains did not want him to describe his reform message.

Therefore, Roemer’s campaign is now focused on winning the Americans Elect nomination to be on the November ballot in all 50 states. Then he wants 15% support in poll numbers so he will be included in debates with the Democratic and Republican nominees. The public-participation steps he needs are described here. The Americans Elect process, with several other provocative candidates both declared and undeclared, is here.

Abramoff’s Book, ‘Capitol Punishment’
Abramoff’s credibility problem is even more obvious: No matter what he says or does now, some critics, including those with personal reasons to be aggrieved, continue to suspect his motives in harsh terms because of his notorious crimes and braggadocio revealed in his emails nearly a decade ago. Especially because he proved himself so crafty and otherwise capable in his advocacy work, critics continue to suspect that his reform effort must have sinister motives. One is sales of his book, Capitol Punishment.

Jack Abramoff's "Capitol Punishment"

Two weeks ago, my Justice Integrity Project included several such criticisms at length in a column, “Abramoff Proposes Radical Reforms to Halt Lobbying Corruption.” But it’s now time to say the possibility of a new plot by Abramoff is far less important than the virtual certainty of abuse by others, especially since we know that the conventional media only erratically apply such judgmental standards to other candidates or public policy commentators.

For critics who bemoan any publicity about Abramoff’s book: In the big picture, so what if he sells copies? None were on sale when he spoke at the National Press Club this month. And just 10 were on the registration table at the March 22 forum, held at the National Trust for Historic Preservation near Dupont Circle. The book is listed at No. 16,846 in sales at Amazon.com. That’s not going to make Abramoff rich, especially since he owes $44 million in court-ordered restitution.

Abramoff brought his young children to both evening lectures in Washington I’ve seen this month where he abjectly confesses wrongdoing and advocates reform. If that’s all part of a plot it’s a complicated one that no one has documented — in contrast to the vast waste and corruption elsewhere in both government and related private sectors that seems to receive only sporadic oversight.

Summing Up
Our watchdog institutions have obvious difficulties fulfilling their oversight role.

Trevor Potter

Therefore, it was impressive that the Abramoff-Roemer audience March 22 contained several experts prominent in compliance who voiced publicly or in private comments during a reception the need for much more reform. One of the speaker-commentators, for example, was Trevor Potter, left. Although far from the most outspoken, his presence seemed significant. He was chairman of the 1994 Federal Election Commission, and general counsel of 2000 and 2008 GOP Presidential campaigns of Sen. John McCain. The Arizona senator was, as chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, a leading scourge of Abramoff.

One of the founders of the evening’s host Committee for the Republic counts is Boyden Gray, former White House counsel in the Reagan administration and a backer of tea party and other conservative initiatives. In the audience also were several representatives of non-partisan groups generally regarded as progressive thought-leaders, such as Public Citizen.

Abramoff says he’s carried his message to 300 radio interviews — and hasn’t heard anyone from listener call-ins from ‘the public” who thinks his reform proposals are too harsh on politicians and influence-peddlers. Objections, he says, come only from insiders benefiting from a corrupt current system.

What’s the harm he’s fighting? “As the federal government has assumed more and more power,” he says, “these problems have intensified. So, we have special interests who not only know how to use the system to help their clients, but to hurt others.”

He and Roemer agreed that the major problem with influence-peddling is not just illegality — but a culture in which reforms are so timid and easily surmounted that commonplace, entirely legal practices foster corruption. Or, as Roemer says, the system makes “good people to do bad things.”

What they say is common knowledge, even in Washington. But it’s difficult to find anyone who articulates problems and solutions in an effective way.

What’s Next?
During Q&A at the Committee for the Republic forum, one audience member asked for specifics to fight for reform. Abramoff said he and his allies are developing a plan to require a pledge from congressional candidates promising to support reform — with campaigns against those who refuse. “Hopefully by Memorial Day,” Abramoff said, “there will be a very big effort out there.”

Roemer said he’s running because someone needs to emphasize the devastating impact of corruption in politics. If he gets on stage with President Obama and the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, Roemer says, “This election is wide open.”

Whatever the case, the public greatly benefits when a Roemer or Abramoff raises these issues so visibly.

Andrew Kreig is director of the Justice Integrity Project, a nonpartisan DC-based legal reform group whose site has appendices to this column

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