Want Fries With That?

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, January 20, 2006

House Speaker Dennis Hastert wants you to know he is shocked to learn that fellow Republicans have been running a den of iniquity right under his nose. It has come to Hastert's attention that some man named Jack Abramoff, never heard of him, who apparently is something called a "lobbyist," whatever that is, has confessed to purchasing the vote of at least one GOP congressman and is singing sweetly to prosecutors about others.

Hastert says we shouldn't worry though, because we're not sure anything really happened and anyway he's going to make sure it never happens again, and blah blah blah blah blah, just move along, folks, there's nothing to see here.

But there's certainly something to smell . In "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Big Daddy called it "the powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity."

Don't be fooled by the chorus shouting "The Democrats did it, too!" -- from Tom DeLay's multiple troubles to Duke Cunningham's antique commode to Abramoff's spider web of tainted links, this is a Republican scandal, period. For the record, there's no indication that Abramoff, who had a habit of making lavish campaign contributions, gave any of his own money to Democrats -- he seems to have written checks to Republicans only. His clients, at least some of them presumably acting on his advice, gave most of their contributions to the GOP and relatively little to Democrats.

So House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gets to say that Republicans "have turned Congress into an auction house, for sale to the highest bidder." And Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid can claim that expecting the Republican majority to enact genuine reform "is like asking John Gotti to do what he can to clean up organized crime." The GOP crowd running Washington really did blaze new territory in influence-peddling with an unholy union of politicians and lobbyists known as the "K Street Project." Democrats, who at this point can't say "good morning" without somehow working in the phrase "culture of corruption," are entitled to their sanctimony.

This time.

In the not-so-distant future, according to the law of averages, some Democrat will be found to have ethical "problems," and Republicans will self-righteously point across the aisle. "You see," they'll say, "it's not just us. The problem is bigger than any one problem. We need genuine, bipartisan reform."

At that point I'll check to make sure my wallet is still in place, and you should, too.

The thing is that Congress has demonstrated over the years its willingness to be, well, bribed. That's what ordinary people would call it when lobbyists, or nonprofit entities those lobbyists control, pay to fly our elected representatives on "fact-finding" trips to exotic destinations that don't exactly qualify as global hot spots. I'm just not sure how the public interest is served when our public servants uncover "facts" such as the best line off the 17th tee on the Old Course at St. Andrews, or the most commodious stretch of beach in Rio de Janeiro.

On Tuesday Hastert overcame his shock long enough to present a Republican plan for draining the ethical swamp -- no privately funded travel, tougher limits on gifts from lobbyists, more disclosure. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), complaining about the proposal to lower the gift limit from $50 to $20, raised the specter of lobbyists wining and dining legislators at McDonald's.

The horror, the horror.

Democrats, releasing their plan on Wednesday, upped the ante with a proposal to eliminate even Big Macs: no lobbyist gifts whatsoever. But they also ventured closer to the rotten heart of the matter by taking aim at two practices that really drive corruption in Washington.

One is the common scenario under which a member stays in Congress long enough to amass some seniority and power, then retires and begins a new career on K Street as a high-priced lobbyist -- one with unlimited access to his or her old colleagues on the Hill and a lot of favors to call in. The Democrats suggest that members of Congress should at least have to disclose any negotiations over private-sector jobs. The other non-trivial Democratic proposal would make it harder for legislators to secretly insert provisions into legislation to benefit a particular special interest -- say, one that might be a big campaign contributor. If these last-minute additions were more transparent, they would become less common.

I'd like to believe that all this flailing and gnashing of teeth will mean something, but I'm not optimistic. In the end, I think, you'll see fewer members of Congress playing golf in Scotland, and maybe one or two will even arrange to be photographed standing in line at McDonald's. Other than that, business as usual.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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