By DAN K. THOMASSON
The verdict is still out on whether Congress truly is the best money can buy, although the evidence is heavily weighted toward that being the case.
There still is time to turn things around when the Senate takes up two major but watered down lobbying reform bills this week. But if the recent rejection by a Senate committee of a bipartisan proposal to establish an office that would oversee the enforcement of ethics and lobbying laws is any indication, redemption won’t happen. The committee vote wasn’t even close — 11 to 5 against — pretty much making it clear that even the shadow of Jack Abramoff isn’t as long as one might imagine when it comes to what really counts, money.
Initially, of course, there was a rush to return contributions Abramoff had directed from Indian tribes and elsewhere into the campaign coffers of a great number of congressmen, mainly Republicans but also some big-time Democrats. This was accompanied by pledges from leaders of both chambers, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, that there would be meaningful alterations in dealings with those seeking to purchase their own private lawmakers.
As the weeks have passed, however, the promises have failed to materialize into anything terribly substantial. In fact, the new House Republican leader, John Boehner of Ohio, who owes his job to former GOP boss Texas Tom DeLay’s resignation after alleged campaign contribution violations in his home state and because of his longtime relationship with Abramoff, has made it clear he doesn’t favor some of the more restrictive anti-lobbying proposals at all.
Why should dinners and trips and other handouts be banned altogether? Why should there be draconian restrictions on how much outside influence by special interests can be tolerated in the drafting of legislation? What’s the harm in a little golf outing to St. Andrews?
The word on Capitol Hill is that all that is needed to clean up the scene is more "transparency" in disclosing contacts and activities with lobbyists and that will be the center of debate as the Senate takes up two bills to do just that. The new reporting and disclosure provisions are a step forward but far short of the original goal. Even if senators seeking stringent measures are successful in amending the bills, it is unlikely the House will do the same.
For those of us who have been haunting these environs longer than we like to remember, it all seems too familiar. From Harry Truman’s cronies and Dwight Eisenhower’s errant aide to Senate extortionist Bobby Baker to the Thomas Dodd affair, to questionable activities by former Speakers Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich, modern political history is replete with scandals that led to promises of reform that failed to stem the flow of cash and abuses.
As for the defeat of the proposed new congressional office of public integrity, the ethics committees of both houses, established in the wake of scandals in the ’60s, contend it would just duplicate what they already do. For that reason, Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and a member of the panel considering the new office, led the charge in its defeat. The key sponsors of the proposal, Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, say they will push for its adoption on the Senate floor.
It seems doubtful, however, that lawmakers on either side of Capitol Hill would approve an independent office whose assignment would be to look over their shoulders on a consistent and persistent basis. On the House side, leaders often have smarted about the activities of the ethics committee and have taken steps recently to hamstring its authority.
To understand the Byzantine machinations in all this, one need only follow the money _ mainly the pressure of raising huge sums to perpetuate tenure in office. Add large amounts of available cash to the greed factor that grips some lawmakers who are not independently wealthy and one comes up with the likes of California Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham who just recently pleaded guilty to selling his office and was sentenced to a long prison term. There undoubtedly will be more as the federal investigation into Abramoff’s activities continues, aided, of course, by Abramoff’s own guilty plea and pledge to help.
So when someone mentions the quality of the Congress, the odds are the answer still is the best money can buy.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)