Congress pretends to reform itself

Old congressmen never die. They just go to the House and Senate gyms and push special interests — but maybe not for long now.

It looks as though Congress is going to clean up its act when it comes
to outside influence. But don’t expect squeaky-clean. There are
loopholes allowing lawmakers to escape into the seemingly
uncontrollable world of campaign finance, where most political evil
originates, that may diminish the efforts.

The scandals now
generating so much consternation on Capitol Hill have been in the
making for at least 130 years, about the time the term “lobbyist” was
popularized during the administration of Ulysses Grant. The major
difference between now and then is not the way the game is played, but
the number of special-interest players. Their ranks have grown to such
an extent that they would fill the entire Willard Hotel, instead of
just the lobby that gave rise to Grant’s use of the term. Actually,
they occupy more than several blocks of office buildings along
Washington’s K Street corridor.

So now we have the ongoing Jack
Abramoff scandal _ and the now-infamous K Street Project launched by
former House GOP Leader Tom DeLay to raise campaign money and swell
patronage. Democrats and Republicans have rushed out competing plans to
curtail a number of questionable activities that some lobbyists
regularly engage in.

Because Republicans have been in charge of
Congress for over a decade, Democrats have lost no time blaming them
for “a culture of corruption,” ignoring the fact that some Democrats
are at least tangentially involved. Historically, neither party has
been without sin in these cases. The last great lobbying scandal, in
the early 1960s, involved the Democrats.

Among the proposed
reforms are limiting the floor and gym privileges for ex-members of the
House and Senate to those who aren’t registered lobbyists and have no
ulterior motives for skulking around corridors and buttonholing their
former colleagues. One expects that there would be very few. Maybe some
will even go back to where they came from following defeat or
retirement. That would be the day.

Presumably, those infamous
mid-winter “fact-finding” trips to the Caribbean and all the junkets to
Europe and Asia would be off-limits if privately financed. What a
shame. Everyone realizes that the environmental aspects of St. Andrews
in Scotland are always worth studying. Just ask DeLay, who was
Abramoff’s guest at a now-notorious golf outing. Some plans would set
limits on the amount that could be spent for lunch or dinner, while
other proposals would eliminate that perk altogether.

Here’s the
rub, however. Most of the plans simply deal with ethical behavior and
have nothing to do with fund-raising laws. The red wine and T-bone
special can still be provided as long as the influence peddler ends the
evening by handing the lawmaker a donation to his or her campaign. So
unless that glaring gap is closed, most of what is being proposed is
stuff and nonsense, another congressional con job to protect the perks
of winning one election and making sure of similar results in the next

After weeks of seemingly trying to ignore the burgeoning
scandal, House Speaker Dennis Hastert has taken the Republican lead in
establishing new rules, obviously hoping to distance himself from his
partnership with DeLay. Should anyone be surprised at his earlier
intransigence? After all, he got the job in the first place with the
not-inconsiderable help of DeLay, whom he initially strove to protect
by preserving DeLay’s right to return to his leadership post depending
on the outcome of state charges.

There is, of course, a
legitimate need for outside input into the legislative process despite
the huge number of personal and committee staff aides and research
assistants. Citizens groups and representatives of business and
industry not only have a right to be heard, they often make important
contributions to the drafting of legislation. But the system has gotten
out of hand and corrupted by the high cost of campaigning and vast sums
of ready cash available for legislative favors.

It doesn’t take
any special genius to discern what is or isn’t ethical. It will be
fascinating to see if this debilitating mess will actually result in a
meaningfully reformed system _ or deteriorate into just another
political brawl with a return to business as usual after the election.
That probably will depend on how far into the congressional ranks the
scandal reaches.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)