Jewish World Review Jan. 6, 2006/ 6 Teves, 5766

Wesley Pruden

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Looking for virtue in a wrong place | Jack Abramoff hasn't done much for the rest of us lately, but he has restored our faith in the wisdom of Mark Twain, who described Congress as "our only native criminal class."

The pooper-scoopers among us are mostly Republicans, but not all. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota took $79,300, the righteous Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa scooped up $45,750, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan got only petty cash ($6,250). Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada ($68,941), the role model for Senate Democrats, and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington ($41,000), unlike most of their colleagues, aren't even going to give the tainted money back, either to Mr. Abramoff himself or to one of the Indian tribes through whom the contributions were conveniently laundered.

They're entitled to keep the cash because, not being Republicans, they think they haven't done anything wrong. Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island ($42,000) will keep it, too, not wanting to make Indian givers of Jack and his tribal friends. Besides, when you're a Kennedy, isn't that proof enough that you're a saint?

These Democrats take their inspiration from the governor that Huey P. Long left in charge of Louisiana when he came to Washington to take his seat in the Senate. "I seen my opportunities," the convict governor said as he departed for his fitting by the prison tailor, "and I took 'em."

Like panicked Republicans, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, among other Democrats, hurried out to find an orphanage, a home for unwed mothers, anything respectable to take the hot money off their hands. Nevertheless, this is first and last a Republican scandal, not least because Jack Abramoff and associates (who include several well-known Washington lobbyist names) lavished cash and junkets on congressmen who count, and since 1994, when they took back the Congress, that meant Republicans. Even more to the point, the 1994 tsunami was about repealing the widely and correctly held perception that "Congress" was a synonym for "corruption." The Republicans told us they came to town via the high road and weren't like Democrats. A new day was dawning over the Potomac. No more Mr. Bad Guy.

Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House who was the architect of the Contract With America that enabled the Republicans to pick up an astonishing 54 seats in the House in 1994, warns his old friends and former colleagues that now they risk losing everything in November if they try to pin blame on the Democrats.

"You can't have a corrupt lobbyist unless you have a corrupt member of Congress," Mr. Gingrich told Rotarians in Washington in the wake of the proceedings that made Mr. Abramoff a capital pariah. If the party's congressional leaders, Bill Frist in the Senate and Dennis Hastert in the House, try to turn the scandal into a festival of mere lobbyist bashing, they will pay a high price. Everybody already knows a lobbyist is undesirable (except after dark).

"If they intend to retain a majority," he said, elaborating, "then they need to take the lead in saying to the country that we need to clean this mess up. But any effort to push this under the rug, to say this is just one bad apple, that's baloney."

Apples and baloney make a particularly unappetizing pie, and only the terminally naive imagined in 1994 that the Republican sweep would write finis to scandal, and any reasonably observant citizen has seen this scandal coming. Once in power, the Republicans set about to get their share of plunder that had been a Democratic preserve for so long. Resolve and discipline evaporated. Restraint gave way to greed. Big government and insensate spending, which were high crimes and misdemeanors when the Democrats did it, suddenly became Republican virtues. Power corrupts, in Lord Acton's famous formulation, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Lord Acton had never even met these worthies. If you don't believe Jack Abramoff, you could ask Duke Cunningham.

"Ethics" is suddenly the congressional mantra, though looking for an ethic in Congress is as foolish as looking for a virgin in a bordello. Mr. Frist says he intends to put "ethics" on the Senate agenda this year and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says "ethics" will be an "element" in their drive to win back the House. This may be the best we can do. H.L. Mencken warned of expecting too much when three wolves and two sheep discuss what's for lunch.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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