WASHINGTON – As politicians led by President Bush scrambled to ditch campaign contributions from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich cautioned Republicans they risk losing control of congressional majorities if they try to put all the blame on lobbyists.
"You can't have a corrupt lobbyist unless you have a corrupt member [of Congress] or a corrupt staff. This was a team effort," Gingrich told a Rotary Club lunch in Washington on Wednesday. He called for systematic changes to reduce the enormous financial advantages that incumbents have in congressional elections.
As head of a conservative movement based on ethics concerns and promises to curb federal growth, Gingrich led the GOP in 1994 to its first House majority in 42 years. But he decided to resign in 1998 when Republicans lost seats a year after Gingrich himself was fined $300,000 for violating House rules barring the use of tax-exempt foundations for political purposes.
He said the GOP leaders, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., need to resist mere "lobbyist bashing" and push campaign finance changes, along with smaller and more effective government.
"If they intend to retain a majority, then ... they need to take the lead in saying to the country we need to clean this mess up," Gingrich told reporters. "But any effort to push this under the rug, to say this is just one bad apple: That's baloney."
So far the primary response by politicians has been to separate themselves from campaign contributions they took from Abramoff or Indian tribes he represented — either by returning them or donating them to charity.
In just the two days since Abramoff pleaded guilty Tuesday in Washington to three federal felonies, more than 40 elected federal officials have given up Abramoff donations, joining a dozen who did so last year.
This week's list was headed by Republicans Bush, Frist, Hastert, House Majority Leader Roy Blunt of Missouri and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, who faces legal problems of his own. But some Democrats joined in, including Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.
Republicans dominated the list — not surprising given that Abramoff, a friend of DeLay's, gave far more to them than to Democrats.
The scandal's effect on the 2006 election was on the mind of many who jettisoned the donations.
"I wish it hadn't happened because it's not going to help us keep our majority," conceded Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio.
As Abramoff pleaded guilty to a second set of felony charges Wednesday, this time in Florida, officials said Bush's 2004 re-election campaign intended to give up $6,000 in donations from the lobbyist, his wife and a client.
A spokeswoman for Blunt, Burson Taylor, said, "While we firmly believe the contributions were legal at the time of receipt, the plea indicates that such contributions may not have been given in the spirit in which they were received."
Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, under federal investigation over his links to Abramoff, joined in the rush.
The Republican scramble to shed cash that once was eagerly sought underscored the potential political problem the party faces in this election year.
Gingrich told reporters he thinks Republicans should elect a permanent replacement for DeLay. In addition to links with Abramoff, the Texan is battling campaign finance charges in his home state of Texas but hopes to regain his leadership post.
Regula, who came to Congress in 1973 and survived post-Watergate elections that crippled his party, said the implications of the Abramoff plea deals could be devastating for the GOP. "I was in the minority for 22 years and the majority for 11, and having tried it both ways, I definitely prefer the majority."
Frist issued a statement placing ethics issues on the Senate agenda for the year. He said he intends to "examine and act on any necessary changes to improve transparency and accountability for our body when it comes to lobbying."
For their part, House Democrats signaled they intend to make ethics an element in their drive to gain a majority in next fall's elections.
"It's more important for these Republicans to come clean with the American people about ... what [they] did for Jack Abramoff and his special interest friends in return for those campaign contributions," said Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the House Democratic campaign organization.