Pay to play, brought to you by Washington

Dana Milbank
Opinion writer November 18, 2011

Almost exactly a year ago, members of Congress voted overwhelmingly to censure their colleagueCharlie Rangel for bringing dishonor on the House. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi summoned the New York Democrat to the well and chastised the congressman for his 11 ethics violations, which included improper fundraising.

This week, Rangel again brought the House into disrepute — but this time he had the full support of his colleagues.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

“Last night marked a momentous evening in my campaign for re-election,” Rangel wrote Thursday in a letter to supporters. “At a special event in Washington, Democratic leaders including Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, James Clyburn, Sandy Levin, John Con­yers, Emmanuel Cleaver, and Steve Israel stood by my side and pledged their unwavering support on my behalf. I am so humbled and grateful for their involvement.”

As further evidence of how he had gone from opprobrium to affirmation, Rangel attached an article from Politico headlined “What Censure? Rangel’s Back.” The article included quotes from Rangel taunting the House ethics committee members and saying his censure was all for show.

It’s hard to quarrel with Rangel’s reasoning. The fete Wednesday night at the upscale Bistro Bis, near Union Station, was a way for House Democrats to demonstrate that their punishment of the defrocked Ways and Means committee chairman was insincere. By attending the up-to-$5,000-per-ticket soiree, they were proclaiming that all was forgiven.

The public is not nearly so forgiving. The Rangel party — to which lobbyists and other influence seekers paid to gain access, and favor among, party leaders — goes a long way toward explaining why Americans’ approval of Congress has dropped to 9 percent.

The speedy rehabilitation of a member who received the House’s first censure in nearly three decades is a symptom of what has destroyed trust in government and the ability of that government to function. As Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, an ethics specialist, put it to me this week: “Who would ever trust such a system?” And “how can this government continue to behave like this?”

Lessig, who began his career as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia but who now describes himself as a liberal, wrote the just-released book “Republic, Lost,” about how both parties in Washington engage in “a corruption practiced by decent people” that has discredited government.

“The great threat to our republic today comes not from the hidden bribery of the Gilded Age,” he writes, but from “the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. . . . We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.”

There’s hardly the need for more evidence to support such an obvious thesis, but more presents itself each day. On Thursday, the day after Rangel’s romp at Bistro Bis, lawmakers spent the day grilling Energy Secretary Steven Chu on how the Obama administration allowed a politically well-connected company called Solyndra to squander half a billion taxpayer dollars when the solar energy company went belly-up. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) quizzed Chu about George Kaiser, an Obama donor and an investor whose venture capital firm had a stake in Solyndra, who “was in and around the White House at least 16 times in the time period that the Solyndra loan program was being reviewed.”

Chu denied this had anything to do with the decision. Maybe so, but in this pay-to-play system, who’s going to believe it?

It’s not as if Republicans are in a solid position to challenge the Democrats’ influence-peddling. The Solyndra hearing came just after reports emerged that Newt Gingrich, this week’s surprise front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, had received at least $1.6 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac. He took the money even as Republicans were trying to abolish the mortgage giant and even though he criticized President Obama for accepting campaign contributions from its executives.

But when it comes to hypocrisy, you have to raise a glass to the Democratic leaders who went for cocktails with Rangel donors who paid $500 for individual access and $5,000 to be political action committee “chairs.” “No corporate checks, please,” one solicitation reminded, under Rangel’s name.

The early solicitations promised access to “special guests” such as Hoyer, before the “great news” came out that Pelosi would attend. For lobbyists too busy to join, the campaign “would be willing to set up your own event” with Rangel.

For a man who just 11 months ago was censured for ethics violations, it was particularly brazen. What’s truly scandalous is how routine it was.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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