It's not healthy to blow your favorite evening beverage through your nostrils. But that's how surprised I was to hear National Democratic Chairman Howard Dean deny that any Democrats took money from Jack Abramoff.
Unless you've been on the moon for a while, you probably have heard that Abramoff is a formerly well-connected Republican who has pleaded guilty to federal charges tied to his lobbying operations. Right-wing bloggers and others pounced on Dean and flailed away, since a number of Democratic senators and congressmen already have given Abramoff-associated money to charity. How, then, could Dean say otherwise? Right?
But, I checked it out and, guess what? Dean was right. Although both Democrats and Republicans did, in fact, receive money from Abramoff's clients, only Republicans received personal donations from Abramoff himself.
Yet, some journalists, particularly in the shorthand of television news, have given a different impression, framing Abramoff's donations as more bipartisan than they really were. So, Dean was ready when veteran CNN newsman Wolf Blitzer asked him: "Should Democrats who took money from Jack Abramoff… give that money to charity or give it back?"
"There are no Democrats who took money from Jack Abramoff," Dean answered. "Not one. Not one single Democrat. … There is no evidence that Jack Abramoff ever gave any Democrat any money and we've looked through all those FEC (Federal Election Commission) reports to make sure that's true."
He's right, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which keeps track of such things. Their analysis of FEC records shows that Democrats received about a third of the $4.2 million donated between 1998 and 2005 by tribes that had hired Abramoff to represent them in Washington, but none from Abramoff's own wallet.
By all indications, donations from the Indian tribes were no less legitimate than the donations any other individual, organization or industry with an interest in legislation gave to candidates. That's a shortcoming of campaign donation reports: They tell you how much money someone gave to a candidate but not why they gave it.
If anything, the tribes are one of the true victims in the Abramoff saga. Investigators say Abramoff referred to his Indian clients with racist slurs in his e-mails and represented some tribes while also representing their rival tribes who were competing for the same casino turf the mother of all conflicts of interest!
Nevertheless, the stink of scandal is so fierce in Washington these days that numerous Democratic as well as Republican senators and congressmen have been giving money to charity equal to the amount that they received from tribes linked to Abramoff to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, for example, gave up a measly little $2,000 donation she received from a tribe, and the Bush-Cheney campaign gave up a $6,000 donation. But, as Democrats are quick to point out, the Bush campaign kept another $100,000 that Abramoff directly raised, earning coveted "pioneer" status for himself among Bush campaign donors.
In fact, the Abramoff scandal, like some other recent high-profile dust-ups in Congress, is fundamentally a Republican scandal, if only because Republicans are so unquestionably in charge of Congress. To the victors go the spoils and the spoilage.
As the party took over both houses of Congress in 1994 with a promise to clear out the foul odor of earlier scandals caused by Democrats, the stench of today's scandal is rendered even more foul by the whiff of hypocrisy.
Now, this scandal moves through the phases of other major scandals that preceded it. First comes the finger-pointing, then the contrition and the investigations and proposed legislation to finallyfinally!clean up the mess in Washington. Yet, the reforms that followed the scandals of Watergate or Abscam or former House Speaker Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, and various others have inevitably led to new loopholes that open the way to new scandals.
The good news is that these days, Congress is more trustworthy, contrary to the public's impression in the polls, precisely because new regulations have made the process of raising and spending money on candidates and lobbying more transparent. Reform-minded senators like John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and representatives like Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) are introducing new legislation to require even more reporting requirements and more restrictions on relations between lobbyists and members of Congress.
That's the right way to go. We'll never eliminate the love of money from politics but, like the love between teen-agers who try to sneak around behind their parents' backs, we can try to shine brighter lights on it.