BERKELEY, California --
In Washington these days, there is great speculation about exactly how intimately President Bush and super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff were acquainted.
According to the Associated Press, Abramoff and his associates logged almost 200 White House contacts during Bush's first 10 months in office. Reportedly, Abramoff's personal assistant became a senior adviser to Bush adviser Karl Rove. And Time magazine claims to have seen five photos of Bush and Abramoff that "suggest a level of contact between them that Bush's aides have downplayed."
Not surprisingly, White House spokesman Scott McClellan has pooh-poohed the Bush-Abramoff relationship as nonexistent. "The president does not know him," says McClellan, "nor does the president recall ever meeting him. What we're not going to do is engage in a fishing expedition that has nothing to do with the investigation."
Many people in Washington -- Democrats and Republicans -- are dissatisfied with McClellan's evasions. Calls for fuller disclosure on White House contacts with Abramoff are now coming from both sides of the aisle. Many Democrats see this as a great opportunity for guilt by association, and many Republicans are sure that a little honesty would clear up the misunderstanding and speculation that always surround such scandals.
Yet while I want to know as much as anyone else exactly how involved Jack Abramoff was in formulating White House policy, I am also somewhat sympathetic to McClellan's warnings of a "fishing expedition" -- although for very different reasons. The danger in focusing too much on Abramoff's progress is that it turns this into a scandal about one very bad lobbyist -- instead of a scandal about the thousands of lobbyists who spend their days prancing around the White House, sprinkling generous cash donations in choice places, and then making not-so-subtle hints about tax loopholes and energy policy -- mostly perfectly legally.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, over the last six years more than 1,300 registered lobbyists have given more than $1.8 million to President Bush. Fifty-two of them were major fundraisers for the Bush campaign. When Bush was first elected, he placed 92 lobbyists on his transition advisory team.
Since 1998, 273 former White House staffers have registered as lobbyists, representing more than 3,000 companies and interest groups (and charging more than $1 billion for their collective time). Since 1998, more than 4,600 companies, trade associations, and interest groups have directly lobbied the White House.
And so on.
What these numbers should tell us is that even if Jack Abramoff is the frowning face of capital corruption, he is really only a bit player in a larger drama of monied special interests' buying their way into policymaking pre-eminence.
It may be that we will soon see photos of Bush and Abramoff shaking hands, smiling, looking like the best of friends. But if so, the real scandal is that every time Bush and Abramoff posed for the camera, another hundred lobbyists were probably waiting in the wings for their turn at the very same photograph.
Lee Drutman, a frequent contributor, is co-author of The People's Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy (Berrett-Koehler).
© 2006 The Providence Journal