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Congress pretends to reform
Scripps Howard News Service


January 20, 2006

WASHINGTON - Old congressmen never die. They just go to the House and Senate gyms and push special interests - but maybe not for long now.

It looks as though Congress is going to clean up its act when it comes to outside influence. But don't expect squeaky-clean. There are loopholes allowing lawmakers to escape into the seemingly uncontrollable world of campaign finance, where most political evil originates, that may diminish the efforts.

The scandals now generating so much consternation on Capitol Hill have been in the making for at least 130 years, about the time the term "lobbyist" was popularized during the administration of Ulysses Grant. The major difference between now and then is not the way the game is played, but the number of special-interest players. Their ranks have grown to such an extent that they would fill the entire Willard Hotel, instead of just the lobby that gave rise to Grant's use of the term. Actually, they occupy more than several blocks of office buildings along Washington's K Street corridor.

So now we have the ongoing Jack Abramoff scandal - and the now-infamous K Street Project launched by former House GOP Leader Tom DeLay to raise campaign money and swell patronage. Democrats and Republicans have rushed out competing plans to curtail a number of questionable activities that some lobbyists regularly engage in.

Because Republicans have been in charge of Congress for over a decade, Democrats have lost no time blaming them for "a culture of corruption," ignoring the fact that some Democrats are at least tangentially involved. Historically, neither party has been without sin in these cases. The last great lobbying scandal, in the early 1960s, involved the Democrats.

Among the proposed reforms are limiting the floor and gym privileges for ex-members of the House and Senate to those who aren't registered lobbyists and have no ulterior motives for skulking around corridors and buttonholing their former colleagues. One expects that there would be very few. Maybe some will even go back to where they came from following defeat or retirement. That would be the day.

Presumably, those infamous mid-winter "fact-finding" trips to the Caribbean and all the junkets to Europe and Asia would be off-limits if privately financed. What a shame. Everyone realizes that the environmental aspects of St. Andrews in Scotland are always worth studying. Just ask DeLay, who was Abramoff's guest at a now-notorious golf outing. Some plans would set limits on the amount that could be spent for lunch or dinner, while other proposals would eliminate that perk altogether.

Here's the rub, however. Most of the plans simply deal with ethical behavior and have nothing to do with fund-raising laws. The red wine and T-bone special can still be provided as long as the influence peddler ends the evening by handing the lawmaker a donation to his or her campaign. So unless that glaring gap is closed, most of what is being proposed is stuff and nonsense, another congressional con job to protect the perks of winning one election and making sure of similar results in the next one.

After weeks of seemingly trying to ignore the burgeoning scandal, House Speaker Dennis Hastert has taken the Republican lead in establishing new rules, obviously hoping to distance himself from his partnership with DeLay. Should anyone be surprised at his earlier intransigence? After all, he got the job in the first place with the not-inconsiderable help of DeLay, whom he initially strove to protect by preserving DeLay's right to return to his leadership post depending on the outcome of state charges.

There is, of course, a legitimate need for outside input into the legislative process despite the huge number of personal and committee staff aides and research assistants. Citizens groups and representatives of business and industry not only have a right to be heard, they often make important contributions to the drafting of legislation. But the system has gotten out of hand and corrupted by the high cost of campaigning and vast sums of ready cash available for legislative favors.

It doesn't take any special genius to discern what is or isn't ethical. It will be fascinating to see if this debilitating mess will actually result in a meaningfully reformed system - or deteriorate into just another political brawl with a return to business as usual after the election. That probably will depend on how far into the congressional ranks the scandal reaches.


Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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