Time to clean House

    It is not enough that The Hammer was nailed, evicted without being convicted.

    It is not enough that a tangle of overlapping scandals now clearly
    links ex-Republican leader Tom DeLay, his close lobbyist pal, Jack
    Abramoff, former DeLay aides and associates, and as-yet-uncounted
    members of Congress. It is not enough that, along with many
    Republicans, a few Democrats also got Abramoff-tainted money.

    None of this is enough _ because the real corruption of Congress isn’t
    centered upon the stylish lobbyist who costumed himself for his perp
    walk as Central Casting’s idea of a Hasidic Soprano. The real
    corruption scandal is not even the relative handful of members who may
    someday be convicted for taking Abramoff’s money and turning political
    tricks in return.

    The real congressional corruption scandal is
    the lack of outrage from all who are members of what was once a Grand
    Old Party. It is a corruption of standards and decency _ yes, even a
    corruption of conservative values (including balanced budgets and
    safeguarding liberties).

    And at the center of it is the moral,
    ethical and even political bankruptcy of the House Republican
    leadership. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and the old guard of the Grand
    Old Party countenanced a culture of corruption, claiming not to see it,
    in the hopes that maybe the rest of us never would.

    Now the
    speaker is performing a Capitol kabuki that would be comic, except for
    the fact that all who care deeply about our democracy know that it is
    quite tragic. Hastert recently gave back $69,000 in Abramoff-tainted
    political money that he thought was just fine when he accepted it, and
    still thought was just fine all the time he kept it, despite the
    revelations about Abramoff and DeLay.

    The most recent: Hastert
    this week announced that the House will draft new rules to tighten the
    rules for lobbyists’ contacts with representatives. “Now is the time
    for action,” Hastert said in a written statement, as though he were the
    vanguard of ethical urgency.

    Don’t expect any action, though, in
    the way these contacts really happen: Republican and Democratic members
    alike initiate these contacts when they dial for dollars each day. They
    call lobbyists who represent special interests that are regulated by
    the committees on which the members sit. Senators and representatives
    ask the lobbyists for money for their campaigns ($5,000 for a primary
    election, another $5,000 for the general election). The lobbyists say
    they know they must ante up if they want to guarantee that they will
    have access to the lawmaker when an issue affecting this special
    interest comes up. This is perfectly legal _ even though it can be seen
    as a legal solicitation of a bribe.

    DeLay made Hastert what he
    is today. Hastert, ever grateful, permitted and even facilitated the
    undoing of the House ethics committee, beginning with the time it
    admonished DeLay for an earlier transgression. Hastert oversaw the
    Republican chairman’s removal and replacement with a chairman who has
    longstanding ties to a law firm at the center of the DeLay-Abramoff
    controversy. You will be shocked to learn that the committee has been
    paralyzed ever since.

    House Republicans will soon meet to elect
    a new leader to fill DeLay’s vacancy. The two leading candidates so
    far, acting leader Roy Blunt of Missouri and John Boehner of Ohio, have
    much in common: They are the old guard; both accepted money from
    Abramoff clients.

    But there are a number of well-respected
    Republican House members who have demonstrated leadership abilities and
    were never Abramoffered. This should be their time.

    What is
    needed most of all is a thorough House cleaning. New leaders, some new
    chairmen. Especially for a new, revitalized ethics committee. But even
    that won’t be enough.

    A thorough House cleaning demands a new
    House speaker. The good news here is that this has occurred to at least
    one of the new guard of the Grand Old Party. The Washington Post
    reported Monday: “In the first sign that even Hastert could be in
    trouble, Rep. John E. Sweeney, R-N.Y., said Republicans should consider
    whether to replace the speaker. ‘The time is right for us to do some
    soul-searching and have an open dialogue about the direction of the
    House.’ “

    It is not likely to happen. But it should. House
    Republicans need to jettison all of the old leaders who have become the
    poster-persons for the culture of corruption _ a corruption not just of
    money and politics, but of standards and decency. They need to not just
    reform, but re-form.

    They need to become the Grand New Party.

    (Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)