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.)