Read the charges against lobbyist Jack Abramoff and it might appear that spending money to influence Congress is a crime. It's not. In fact, it's guaranteed...

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WASHINGTON — Read the charges against lobbyist Jack Abramoff and it might appear that spending money to influence Congress is a crime. It’s not.

In fact, it’s guaranteed by the Constitution, that whole First Amendment thing about the right to petition the government.

But there are laws and rules governing the roughly 14,000 lobbyists in Washington who collectively have spent nearly $13 billion since 1998 to influence the government. The difference between right and wrong is defined by where you draw those lines. Spend $49.99 on lunch for a senator and it’s fine. Spend another dime and it’s officially unethical.

And there are loopholes, such as one that allows lobbyists to buy more expensive gifts for “personal friends” in the government.

Skeptics call it legalized bribery. Some insiders say such rules, however imperfect, are the only way to regulate the constitutional right. Politicians fearing fallout from Abramoff’s criminal excesses now insist they have to make the rules tougher.

Abramoff violated the rules and laws. He hired former congressional aides and had them lobby their former bosses sooner than the law allowed. He paid for a member of Congress to take a golf junket to Scotland. Most important, he said in his plea bargain that he provided gifts and campaign contributions to at least one congressman in exchange for official favors.

The most fundamental rule of lobbying law is that it’s criminal to bribe a public official. Lobbyists know they shouldn’t ask for any direct payback from an official for any favor, and it’s often difficult to prove a public action was taken to reward a lobbyist for favors. The difference in the Abramoff scandal is that he’s cooperating with prosecutors and could testify that he struck such explicit bargains with officials.


More on lobbying statistics: www.publicintegrity

Another rule limits how much lobbyists can give to campaigns. Like everyone else, a lobbyist can give up to $2,000 per primary and general election to any candidate for Congress or the presidency.

Lobbying rules

Some major rules of lobbying the federal government:

• Limit campaign contributions from individuals to $2,000 per election.

• Limit gifts, including meals and sporting event tickets, to $49.99, and to $99.99 cumulatively in a year.

• Prohibit former members of Congress and their staffs from lobbying congressional offices for one year after leaving government payroll.

• Prohibit personally financing congressional trips.

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Lobbyists also can raise money for candidates from other sources. Abramoff, for example, raised $100,000 in small donations for President Bush, which was legal.

Lobbyists also can control political-action committees, or PACs, which raise cash from other sources, either to contribute to several candidates or to raise money for one candidate.

How much do PACs give? Since 1998, the 868 political-action committees controlled by lobbyists have raised $525 million for federal candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.

Seeking access, favors

What does all that money get lobbyists? Access, for starters. Sometimes it gets them a few minutes with a member of Congress at a reception for contributors, sometimes a bit longer while walking beside a member from one Capitol office to another, and sometimes it gets them an hour alone with the lawmaker to make their case.

“You have to be somewhat engaged in political support to be effective,” said one veteran lobbyist who spoke on condition of anonymity because his employer didn’t want its corporate name in any stories about Abramoff.

His company has a political-action committee that contributes to members of Congress, and he and other company executives also make personal contributions. With that, they get a chance to explain why they need or oppose government action.

“You need to cut through and let a member know what they need to know,” the corporate lobbyist said. “People who spend 15 minutes talking engage in lobbying malpractice. If you can’t make your point in two, three minutes, then you need to retool what you’re saying.”

If a lobbyist exploits his access persuasively, he might win special treatment for his interest in the wording of a law, tax break or federal regulation. It might be worth millions.

Lobbyists aren’t all corporate, by the way.

There are lobbyists for businesses and labor unions, for polluters and environmental groups, for the tobacco industry and for the American Cancer Society, for states and cities and universities. They seek favors from Congress and virtually every federal agency.

“Even the U.S. Botanic Garden gets lobbied,” said Alex Knott of the Center for Public Integrity.

It costs a lot to mount a lobbying operation. The Center for Public Integrity puts the total spent on items such as lobbyists’ salaries, offices and research at $13 billion since 1998. The biggest spender was the Chamber of Commerce, at $193 million.

Lobbyists are allowed to buy a meal or a gift, such as sporting-event tickets, for a member of Congress. Under the rules of the House of Representatives and the Senate, a lobbyist or anyone else can only give members gifts worth less than $50 at a time, for a total of less than $100 in a year, according to Pam Gavin, a spokeswoman for the Senate Office of Public Records.

They also can give gifts worth less than $10 without those costs counting toward the $100 annual limit.

Members of Congress can, however, accept gifts worth up to $250 from “personal friends” and gifts worth more with permission from the ethics committees, which are made up of fellow lawmakers.

The ins and outs

Members of Congress and their staffs are prohibited by the “revolving-door rule” from lobbying their former offices for a year after leaving the government. About 2,200 former federal officials are lobbyists, including nearly 250 former members of Congress or federal agency directors.

But that time limit applies only to lobbying their former offices. A staff member from the Senate Appropriations Committee, for example, can lobby other committees immediately upon becoming a lobbyist.

Lobbyists also can go on golf trips with lawmakers. They’re allowed to arrange the trip, go along and play golf. But they can’t pay for the trip.

Though Abramoff violated all the rules, many members of Congress say the solution to the scandal is to toughen them.

Some proposals would bar members or their staffs from lobbying their former offices for two years rather than one, for example.

But at least one rules-change proponent, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., acknowledged that honesty in government depends as much on the people as on the policy.

“Ultimately, it depends on the personal behavior and ethics of members of the lobbying profession and members of our government,” he said.

“Ultimately, there always comes a point where people are in the privacy or in the apparent privacy of their own interactions with others, and there’s where they’ve got to decide to hold themselves to an ethical standard.”