The US Congress stands at the pinnacle of American democracy, which the nation is proud - on occasion - to export at the barrel of a gun. Inside, 100 senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives balance the interests of the nation and their constituents with their consciences and party allegiances. Their boss is the American people. Their election campaigns - one huge interview.
This is the basic civics lesson on which every American child is raised and which few adults seriously question. Politicians themselves are held in low esteem - a CNN/USA Today poll last week showed 49% of Americans think their legislators are corrupt. This is generally regarded as the product of individual venality rather than an institutional virus. But if Americans still believe that after last week, then they don't know Jack.
Jack Abramoff, that is. Last Tuesday Abramoff, a high-powered corporate lobbyist, pleaded guilty in a federal courtroom in Washington to bribery, fraud and tax evasion. He has admitted "providing a stream of things of value to public officials" in return for favours, including agreements to back particular laws and put statements in the Congressional Record.
Court papers reveal that this key financier of the Bush administration's high-minded agenda of moral piety is a foul-mouthed, greedy bigot. In intercepted emails, he refers to his Native American clients - whom he played off against each other for millions of dollars which he then used to pamper politicians - as "morons", "monkeys", "fucking troglodytes" and "losers". He did the nation's business not through persuasive debate but with golfing trips to Scotland, junkets to the Pacific, corporate boxes at the Superbowl, and expensive meals at fancy restaurants.
So Abramoff is going down. The only question, now that he has agreed to cooperate with investigators, is how many politicians he will take with him and how far up the food chain prosecutors are prepared to follow the money.
So far only one legislator, Bob Ney from Ohio, has been directly implicated. But these are early days. Like arsenic in the water supply of the nation's political culture, Abramoff's filthy money sloshed around Capitol Hill and flowed freely wherever there was power. Those who fear contamination are now rushing to give the money he gave them to charity. The wall of shame reads like a Who's Who of American politics, including President George Bush, Hillary Clinton, the Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, the former House leader Tom DeLay, and the speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. DeLay, who stood down after he was recently indicted for money-laundering, once described Abramoff as "one of my closest and dearest friends." This weekend, under pressure from colleagues, these ties forced DeLay to abandon any hope of returning to the helm.
Abramoff is looking at 10 years in prison and has agreed to repay $26.7million to those he defrauded. Washington is looking at several months of scandal that could exact a far higher price. For a man like Abramoff does not get that kind of Rolodex by accident. It takes an entire system to support and indulge him. His actions were not aberrant but consistent with an incestuous world in which you had to "pay to play".
"Lawful lobbying does not include paying a public official a personal benefit with the understanding, explicit or implicit, that a certain official act will occur," explained assistant attorney general Alice Fisher last week. "That's not lobbying. That's a crime." If she's true to her word, the entire political class will soon be in the dock.
Lobbyists spend about $25m per politician each year trying to gain political advantage. In the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski in 2002: "We have created a culture in which there's no distinction between what is illegal and what is unethical."
Just two months ago Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Republican congressman from San Diego, confessed to accepting $2.4m in bribes and evading more than $1million in taxes. The former navy pilot, whose exploits in Vietnam formed the basis for the film Top Gun, was given a Rolls-Royce, Persian carpets and use of a yacht.
Democrats are eager to exploit yet another impending crisis. "This kind of politics," said Democrat Jon Tester, "doesn't really represent the rank-and-file folks that are out there every day trying to make ends meet." Tester is challenging Montana's Republican senator, Conrad Burns, who had close ties to Abramoff.
He has a point. But it may not do him any good. The Bush administration did not invent this system - remember all those corporate visitors who stayed over in the White House during Clinton's time? But the problem has certainly got much worse under its tenure, which has seen the number of registered lobbyists in Washington more than double to nearly 35,000. Meanwhile, since 1998 more than 40% of politicians leaving Congress have gained jobs lobbying their former colleagues.
This whiff of sleaze has certainly clung to Republicans. After the indictment of vice-presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Americans believed that Bill Clinton ran a more ethical administration, even after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, than Bush does now. Abramoff's woes will hardly improve matters.
So the Democrats are pushing at an open door. The trouble is that they are on the same side of it as the Republicans, and the public are left out in the cold. Almost a third of Abramoff's money went to Democrats. In a poll for NBC and the Wall Street Journal, 79% of Americans believe corruption is "equally a problem among both parties".
The Democrats stand for office, but little in the way of substantive change. This just leads to growing cynicism among their core base. So long as big money has bought up both sides of the aisle, the poor will never get a fair deal. Never mind the red and blue states: whoever you vote for, the green always wins.
Those who wield these huge sums to lure politicians are apt to act against the interests of those who have barely any money. One of Abramoff's most successful projects was when he represented officials from the Northern Mariana islands. The islands, seized by the US from Japan after the second world war, operate under a special covenant that allows for a lower minimum wage, making it a haven for sweatshops. "We have evidence that at least some of the Chinese workers, when they become pregnant, are given a three-way choice," the interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, testified to the Senate in 1998. "Go back to China, have a back-alley abortion ... or be fired." Abramoff lobbied hard to ensure the islands maintained their special status, flying politicians there to play golf on "fact-finding missions". He succeeded. DeLay later hailed the Northern Marianas as a "free-market success".
Corporate lobbyists are why one in six Americans has no health insurance even though almost two-thirds want a universal government healthcare system that would provide coverage to everyone. Corporate lobbyists are why the minimum wage has not been increased for the past nine years, even though 86% of Americans support a substantial hike. They pimp the principle of democracy in pursuit of profit - they are the cancer within a body politic that continually boasts a clean bill of health.
Email Gary Younge at: email@example.com.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006