NPR logo Jack Abramoff: Make Congressional Candidates Sign Pledge For Reform

Jack Abramoff: Make Congressional Candidates Sign Pledge For Reform

The former uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff has been doing a lot of lion-and-lamb events since getting out of prison, finishing his book and launching a reform agenda for Washington.

Which is how he came to spend part of Monday afternoon at Public Citizen, the good-government group founded in 1971 by Ralph Nader – a place where, he happily noted, his old self would have never set foot.

He's obviously older, and softer, than eight years ago, when he was hauled before a Senate committee as an aggressive, hard-edged but suddenly scared lobbyist who had gotten himself in too deep.

Then, he invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege and declined to testify. At Public Citizen, he had a lot to say about what's Washington ethics, then and now.

For starters, Congress needs term limits, he says: "I was against that as a lobbyist. Frankly, I was against it because once you buy a congressional office, you don't want to have to repurchase that office a few years down the line."

He said there should be term limits for congressional staffers too. He didn't address the counter-argument, that inexperienced lawmakers and staff are even more dependent on lobbyists, who don't have term limits.

Another reform: Break the link between lobbying and campaign cash. In his ideal capital, "No lobbyist, or someone gaining something from Washington that the rest of us don't have, basically a special interest, can give any money politically."

Or gratuities either, said the man who took then-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and other lawmakers golfing in Scotland. The trip helped to send Ney to prison. At Public Citizen, Abramoff acknowledged the obvious: that defining "special interest" wouldn't be easy.

Abramoff wants to end the revolving door, so that lobby firms cannot do what he did – entice Hill staffers with job offers. And he would make all laws apply to Congress.

"It is not conservative to defend this system, this corruption," he said. "That is not a conservative value."

And he posited that these reforms are something that conservatives and liberals can agree on. Nobody at Public Citizen disagreed.

To make the reforms into law, Abramoff suggested a pledge campaign. Make congressional candidates sign a pledge, or as Abramoff put it, "Find a way to squeeze them, the members, into a position where they cannot face their voters, with a straight face, and say that I'm not supporting these things that most Americans overwhelmingly support."

It's a hard-ball tactic that Abramoff knows well. The no-tax-hike pledge came from Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and, long ago, one of Abramoff's allies and occasional business partners.

But nobody has ever suggested before that Washington ethics reform is an issue in which hard-ball tactics would work.