Wow: Larry Lessig Interviews Jack Abramoff
from the don't-miss-it dept
I just came across this, which actually happened a month ago: Larry Lessig, who is focused entirely on figuring out ways to stop systematic corruption in Washington DC, interviewing disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, widely considered the perfect example of corruption in DC. The 1.5 hour discussion is an attempt to not just go over Abramoff’s history, but to educate how the Congressional system works. It’s worth watching in its entirety:
One key point that Abramoff makes, is that government is a “tool to wage war.” He talks about how Congressional hearings are kangaroo courts designed to just cause problems for people or companies that someone doesn’t like. He notes that “even if it goes well,” you have to spend a million dollars just to get ready for the hearing. So, setting up a hearing is a way to cause problems for “enemies.” Indeed, we’ve talked about how legacy industries regularly use government as a weapon against competitors and upstarts — and how troubling it can be when new comers get sucked into the system.
There’s a long discussion about the power of staffers on the Hill, rather than the actual elected officials (who “never read the actual bills”). They note that staffers are the real power. Abramoff talks about how he never wanted to hire the actual Congressional Reps, but always focused on hiring staffers. And then he makes a key admission that won’t surprise many people. He says that, early on, he focused on hiring people when he had job openings. But, later, he would talk to staffers — especially chiefs of staff — and just let them know he had a job opening for them whenever they wanted it. And he would ask them: “When do you want to start?” If they said “two years,” he knew that the guy was already working for him, but on the inside. As he says “I really hired him that day,” even though he went on for two more years working as a chief-of-staff to someone in Congress.
Abramoff notes that most lobbyists, staffers and elected officials aren’t taking it to the criminal level — like he did. And that the real problems are in what’s already legal. He notes that, for himself, he didn’t care about what was legal or what wasn’t — he just wanted to “win” at any cost. But he says most others are at least more conscious of staying on the legal side of the line, even if it’s “legally” corrupt.
From there, they go into a discussion of Abramoff’s own suggestions for reforming the system. That part of the discussion is really interesting, but feels a bit more down in the weeds, as Lessig and Abramoff more or less debate their own personal plans (and their own books) for reforming Congress, campaign finance and lobbying. And, finally, there are audience questions, which are interesting, but don’t really delve that deeply into the overall discussion. Either way, definitely worth watching.