The Capitol's Culture of Capital

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), center, leads Democrats' calls for Republicans to clean up their relationships with lobbyists.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), center, leads Democrats' calls for Republicans to clean up their relationships with lobbyists. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, January 23, 2006

If you think lawmakers are about to crack down on lobbyists, think again.

Sure, something called lobbying reform will slice through Congress like a warm knife through butter. But don't expect the legislation to transform how Washington works.

The only way to achieve fundamental change is to reduce the influence of money. Anything short of that is window dressing.

Unfortunately, superficial alterations are all that most lawmakers will accept. To go deeper and attack the capital's cash-driven culture would threaten what they care most about: getting reelected.

How else to explain the craziness on Capitol Hill?

Members of Congress are falling over themselves to denounce Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe lawmakers and bilk his clients. They say they want to prevent Abramoff-like scandals in the future.

Yet a lot of what they're suggesting would do nothing of the sort. Abramoff and his business partner, Michael Scanlon, have admitted to violating laws that were already on the books. In other words, not a single new rule or statute is needed to serve as a deterrent to others for the crimes they committed.

So why are lawmakers so eager to act? One word: politics.

Republicans are desperate to pass something -- anything -- that appears to clear the capital (and, more importantly, themselves) of the Abramoff odor. Before the next election in November, Abramoff is likely to implicate a half-dozen GOP lawmakers and lobbyists. So the more distance the party can put between the lobbyist and Congress, the stronger are its chances of retaining its majority.

Democrats are pushing their own lobbying bills largely as a way to publicize that Abramoff is a Republican and that the lawmakers he ensnared in controversy are for the most part Republicans, too. The more the Democratic Party can dirty the GOP with Abramoff fallout, the stronger are its chances of regaining majority control.

All of which leaves the question of how to actually fix the mess in Washington pretty much beside the point.

Hence the recommendations we see. The plans offered by both parties deal too often with petty issues and sidestep anything life-changing. And the concerns that are addressed are dealt with ineffectively.


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