In 1994, Republicans were swept to power in Congress chiefly because of public disgust over a
series of scandals involving, mostly, Democrats.
The GOP vowed to change things. But barely a decade later, Republicans in Congress largely
have become what they once campaigned against.
Much of the responsibility for this sad state of affairs rests with Rep. Tom Delay of Texas,
until last September the House Majority Leader. Rather than seeking to diminish the untoward
influence of lobbyists in Washington, Delay strove to replace Democrat lobbyists as the chief
influence peddlers with GOP ones.
In Washington D.C. on Jan. 3rd, lobbyist Jack Abramoff pled guilty to fraud, tax evasion, and
conspiracy to bribe public officials. A day later in Miami, he pled guilty to fraud and
conspiracy in his purchase of a fleet of casino boats in Florida.
Mr. Abramoff's principal victims were indian tribes who owned casinos, who paid Mr. Abramoff's
firm $82 million to help them obtain gaming licenses, or to prevent rival tribes from getting
Mr. Abramoff is a friend of Rep. Delay, and his business partner, Michael Scanlon (who pled
guilty earlier) was once Mr. Delay's press secretary.
So maybe Ronnie Earle, the highly partisan Democratic district attorney of Travis County
(Austin), Texas, did Republicans a favor when he indicted Rep. Delay on what looks to me like a
trumped up charge. GOP rules require a leader to step down if he is indicted.
Mr. Abramoff will get a shorter sentence in exchange for his testimony against Members of
Congress, congressional aides, and Interior Department officials who did favors for him.
The only congressman mentioned in the plea agreement is Bob Ney, a Republican from Ohio. The
court papers say Rep. Ney helped obtain a visa for the relative of a client; put comments in
the Congressional Record supporting Mr. Abramoff's Florida casino bid, and offered legislative
language that would have permitted a tribe in Texas to reopen a casino.
If Rep. Ney did these things as an explicit quid pro quo for the gifts and campaign
contributions Mr. Abramoff and his clients showered upon him, he committed a crime.
But what is really criminal about Washington is not what is illegal, but what is legal. If the
quid pro quo were merely implicit, if Mr. Abramoff was merely buying access and goodwill with
his gifts and contributions, then Rep. Ney committed no crime, which is not the same as saying
he did nothing wrong.
And if there was no explicit quid pro quo, then Rep. Ney did no more than what nearly every
other member of Congress is doing. Our whole system of campaign finance is based on bribery
and extortion. Lobbyists don't provide congressmen with campaign funds or golf outings in
Scotland out of the goodness of their hearts. They expect something in return. And usually
they get it.
Though Mr. Ney was the only Member mentioned in court documents, the Justice department is
looking closely at four other lawmakers, the Washington Times reported Wednesday.
Two Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana and Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona are Republicans. But the other two are Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and Sen. Byron Dorgan of North
Dakota, chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee. This will complicate efforts to portray
this as solely a Republican scandal, as will the fact that 40 of the 45 Democrats in the senate
received campaign contributions from Mr. Abramoff or his clients.
The federal budget is bloated grotesquely by "earmarks" for special interest groups. There
will be no solution until we recognize corruption in Washington is systemic and bipartisan.
Term limits would help. Those most likely to succumb to the blandishments of lobbyists are
those who've been in Washington for quite a while.
But barely disguised bribery will be the rule as long as lawmakers must rely on special
interest groups for the bulk of their campaign funds.
Candidates for federal office should be permitted to accept contributions only from people who
are registered to vote in the states from which they are seeking election, or from the
political party to which they belong. Only when lobbyists can no longer do big favors for our
lawmakers will our lawmakers stop doing big favors for lobbyists.