The US Congress stands at the pinnacle of US 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 US people.
Their election campaigns -- one huge interview.
This is the basic civics lesson on which every US 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 percent 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. On Tuesday last week, 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 favors, 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 e-mails, 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, Republican Representative Bob Ney, 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 US politics -- President George W. Bush, Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, former Republican House leader Tom DeLay, and House Speaker 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 US$26.7 million 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 contact list 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," Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher explained last week. "That's not lobbying. That's a crime."