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Jewish World Review Feb. 10, 2004 / 18 Shevat, 5764

John H. Fund

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Republican Rot: Is Congress's GOP majority becoming as corrupt as the Democrats were? | One way you can tell that Republicans have become the dominant political party in Washington is to watch them cash in.

Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana has announced that next Monday he will step down as chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. Observers expect he will soon leave Congress to become the chief lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry at an annual salary that's rumored to approach $2.5 million, a record for a trade association head. Mr. Tauzin isn't doing anything illegal, but what's good for him isn't good for the country or for the Republican Party. Their voters are already showing signs of concern that congressional Republicans are taking on the bad habits of the Democrats they ousted from power in 1994.

House Democrats finished their annual three-day retreat at the Homstead Resort in Virginia on Saturday. Among the topics they discussed was how to exploit the perception that Mr. Tauzin was being paid off for steering the Medicare prescription drug bill through Congress only two months ago, legislation Democrats say will be a big boon to drug companies. "If you want to know the price of selling seniors down the river," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters, "it's approximately $2 million a year, if you want to hire the manager of the bill on the floor of the House." It doesn't help that Mr. Tauzin already has a wheeler-dealer image or that some House Democrats are still bitter with him for abandoning their caucus after more than 15 years to become a Republican in 1995.

Mr. Tauzin's office insists he is stepping down mainly for health reasons; he is 60 years old and was recently hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer. But his sudden interest in the top job at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, known as Pharma, looks unseemly when the ink is barely dry on the massive prescription drug law. Only last month, he turned down an offer of more than $1 million a year from the Motion Picture Association of America, the film industry's lobbying arm. That would have been a much less controversial soft landing.

Some Republicans fear that Mr. Tauzin has sped up Washington's infamous "revolving door" between Congress and the K Street lobbying shops to a point that could hurt the public perception of Congress. Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, head of the House Republican Conference, admitted to reporters last month that she is worried the Tauzin job offer will make it easier for Democrats to bash the GOP as a tool of pharmaceutical companies. While Mr. Tauzin would be barred from lobbying members of Congress for a year after he leaves office, nothing prevents him from sitting down with executive branch officials with suggestions on how they might draft the drug bill's regulations.

Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, who was one of only 25 GOP House members to vote against the Medicare bill, says Democratic colleagues have told him that the two major reasons they lost control of the House to the GOP in 1994 were the reckless liberalism of the Clinton administration during its first two years and "the Jim Wright and House Bank scandals that convinced people that Democrats were looking out for themselves first. For our own good, I hope we don't fall into that trap."

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He and other members say Mr. Tauzin's jackpot couldn't have come at a worse time. Last week, the House Ethics Committee revealed that for the past two months it has been investigating an allegation by Rep. Nick Smith, a Michigan Republican, that party leaders offered him a bribe in exchange for his vote on the Medicare bill. Mr. Smith voted against the bill and later said unnamed members of his party had said they'd contribute $100,000 to his son's congressional campaign if he had voted in favor. If not, Mr. Smith said, they told him they'd see that the younger Mr. Smith lost his race. Mr. Smith later recanted, saying his claim of bribery was "technically inaccurate" and has since refused to discuss the matter further.

But other GOP members stood by their stories of strong-arm tactics. South Carolina's Rep. Jim DeMint said contributors threatened to withhold donations for his upcoming Senate race unless he voted for the Medicare bill, while Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri said a state legislator threatened to run against him. Rep. Tom Feeney of Florida was told his path towards a party leadership position would be blocked if he voted against the bill.

Republicans should view such tactics and the bidding war for Mr. Tauzin on K Street as warning signs of ideological dry rot. No matter how well gerrymandered their districts, the GOP majority could be in jeopardy if it develops the same reputation for ruthlessness and selfishness that burdened the Democrats in the early 1990s.

If Republicans consolidate their control over Washington while failing to reduce the size of government, they will inevitably be caught up in the care and feeding of the state. Industries that want favors or protection from government will seek out and hire powerful people to move the levers of power. F.A. Hayek warned decades ago against the dangers of a creeping corporate welfare state: "As the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of the directing power."

K Street is beginning to fill up with Republican lobbyists as companies realize the near-monopoly that Democrats had on lobbying jobs no longer makes sense. Lobbying is becoming a family affair. At least 17 current senators and 11 House members have had close relatives working in lobbying or government relations.

Some Republican lobbyists pride themselves on advocating free markets and deregulation, but too often they also take on questionable projects. Before he became chairman of the Republican National Committee last year, Ed Gillespie ran a lobbying practice with former Clinton White House counsel Jack Quinn. They successfully pushed for tariff protections for American steel makers, an economic and foreign-policy disaster President Bush had to pull the plug on last year. Former Rep. Vin Weber has successfully held up the deregulation agenda of FCC Chairman Michael Powell. GOP lobbyists respond that they are only following in the footsteps of Democrats such as Reps. John Dingell and Tony Coelho who in the 1980s perfected the cozy connections between Capitol Hill and K Street.

Naturally, liberal newspapers and ethics watchdog groups propose to deal with the Tauzin problem with new restrictions on lobbying. One sensible idea is to extend to departing members of Congress the yearlong ban on lobbying executive branch officials that already applies to congressional staffers. Other proposed rules are probably unworkable. The Los Angeles Times suggests that lawmakers be banned from direct lobbying for three years and also not be allowed to negotiate a new job while they're still in office. Bob Livingston, the former Appropriations Committee chairman who now operates one of Washington's most popular lobbying shops, says such rules are impractical and would prevent qualified people from seeking seats in Congress "because they won't be able to provide financial security for their families after leaving office."

The problem is that voters have never felt that Congress should be a stepping stone for lucrative postretirement careers. Every few years someone conspicuously crosses an unseen line and rubs the face of the American people in the seamy side of Washington influence peddling. In the 1980s, an infamous Time cover photo of former Reagan White House aide Mike Deaver making lobbying calls from his car led to public outrage and Mr. Deaver's indictment on charges that he lied to a grand jury, He was fined $100,000 and required to complete 1,500 hours of community service. In 2001, President Clinton's midnight pardons of disgraced financier Marc Rich and others confirmed the worst suspicions of many about his character.

Mr. Tauzin's transgression isn't in that league, but blogger Mickey Kaus nonetheless writes that it "provides a Washington scandal that virtually everyone in the press can feel righteous about playing up. Meanwhile, what pol is going to risk his or her neck to defend a once-powerful Congressman who has given up his power."

There is a strong chance that the Tauzin scandal--coupled with the Nick Smith bribery controversy--will only build in coming days. The fear of that may be why Pharma is taking a wait and see attitude towards formally signing up Mr. Tauzin. Rumors have it that internal memos from the pharmaceutical industry that refer to Mr. Tauzin as someone who will always do the industry's bidding may be leaked to the media by his jealous colleagues.

But this political firestorm may die out if Pharma executives realize that Mr. Tauzin is already damaged and thus would be less effective as a lobbyist. Mr. Tauzin ought to be in pictures; the MPAA's offer was quite generous. If he insists on pursuing the drug industry's even more lucrative deal he will only create headaches and embarrassment for all concerned.

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©2001, John H. Fund