The K Street Curse

We were just a few days into this election year when Jack Abramoff entered his guilty plea. Members of Congress immediately dumped contributions from the lobbyist and his clients. They recognized then that any association with a corruption scandal could be politically fatal. So why, as the 2006 campaign progressed, did they forget that? Why, when opinion polls were saying a sizable portion of the electorate thinks Congress is corrupt, did it take Election Day polls for incumbents to get the message?

According to our campaign finance research at the Center for Responsive Politics, nine officeholders learned the real cost of being linked to corruption -- they received contributions from Jack Abramoff, and they lost last week. Other incumbents barely held on to their seats, polling significantly worse than in 2004, and two more are still fighting to remain in Congress. Several more members didn’t even make it to Election Day because of the Abramoff scandal or other disgraces, and their (Republican) party lost those seats. And don’t forget those members who got money from an Abramoff client -- not even the lobbyist himself -- and lost or barely held on.

It wasn’t just Abramoff who cursed these incumbents, of course, and except in Bob Ney’s case, there isn’t any public evidence yet that this year’s losers accepted Abramoff-related contributions illegally. But the scandal highlighted a long-standing perception problem that the 110th Congress will have to address: The public knows, or thinks it knows, that money buys access and influence in government -- and, understandably, they don’t like that. Last week, voters showed that their influence can be far greater than any campaign check.