Most Americans believe that corruption in Congress is widespread, and even larger majorities support far-reaching reforms that would effectively end lobbying as it is currently practiced on Capitol Hill, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The survey comes just days after Jack Abramoff, a prominent Republican lobbyist, pleaded guilty to corruption charges involving at least one member of Congress as well as other federal officials. Abramoff has agreed to cooperate with federal investigators who are investigating public corruption in Congress and elsewhere in the federal government, setting the stage for what may become the biggest and most far-reaching election-year scandal in decades.
The survey found that 58 percent of Americans believe the Abramoff case is evidence of "widespread corruption in Washington," while barely a third -- 34 percent -- say it is limited to just a few individuals. The public thinks corruption is far more prevalent in Washington than it is in their state or local governments.
Although Abramoff has been most closely identified with GOP candidates and interests, neither party is seen as being particularly virtuous, even by its own partisans. Nearly three in four -- including majorities in both parties -- say there "isn't much difference" between the level of ethics and honesty of Republicans and Democrats.
A narrow majority of Americans -- 52 percent -- see members of Congress as about as honest as the average American. But 44 percent say lawmakers are more dishonest. Only 2 percent believe that House and Senate lawmakers are more law-abiding than other people.
Public concerns about ethics in government extend to the White House, which was rocked in late October when the top aide to Vice President Cheney was indicted as part of an ongoing investigation into the leak of the name of a CIA agent to reporters. In the current poll, 45 percent said they approved of how President Bush is handling the issue of ethics in government while 52 percent disapproved.
Support for restrictions on lobbying
The survey also found generally broad support for measures that would put new and potentially crippling restrictions on those who lobby members of Congress on behalf of special interests.
Nine in 10 said it should be illegal for lobbyists to give members of Congress gifts, trips or anything else of value. Lawmakers currently are prohibited from accepting gifts valued at more than $100 over the course of a calendar year, though the restriction is lightly enforced and easily evaded.
Two in three, including majorities of Republicans and Democrats, would go far beyond current proposals for change and make it illegal for lobbyists to make campaign contributions to members of Congress or to congressional candidates. A smaller majority -- 54 percent -- would prohibit lobbyists from organizing fundraisers on behalf of members of Congress or congressional candidates, a practice that has given lobbyists even greater leverage with the elected officials who benefited from these fundraisers.
Despite the widespread popularity of lobbying reform among the public, it is unlikely that changes as restrictive as those mentioned in the Post-ABC News poll would ever be approved by Congress. Politicians have come to depend on the money raised by lobbyists on behalf of their campaigns -- a practice particularly helpful to congressional incumbents -- and leaders of both parties are expected to move cautiously on reform.
Still, the widening Abramoff scandal has forced lawmakers to consider steps to restrict some of the excesses of lobbying. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) announced Sunday that the House will move soon to tighten the rules governing lobbyists' access to lawmakers.
The move comes months after House Democrats, led by Reps. Martin T. Meehan (Mass.) and Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), and Republican Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.) unveiled separate proposals to require more disclosure of lobbying contacts, ban most lobbyist-sponsored trips and increase the time that former House members and staff must wait before becoming lobbyists.
A total of 1,001 randomly selected Americans were interviewed Jan. 5 to 8 for this survey. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus three percentage points.