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.)