The 'culture of corruption'

Posted: Jan 26, 2006 12:05 AM

Democrats think they've found a way to regain power without having to come up with any new and workable ideas. They'll blame Republicans for the "culture of corruption" revealed, they say, by Jack Abramoff's lobbying activities.

It's hard to top Mark Twain's observation more than a century ago - long before Abramoff's birth - but not long before corrupt politicians: "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress." Twain's observation seemed nonpartisan enough, unlike the Democrats who think people have short memories of what the political culture looked like when they dominated it for four decades.

In the not-so-distant and seemingly more innocent past, Rep. Wayne Hays hired blonde bombshell Elizabeth Ray as his secretary. She could not type, but had other assets. Ray later claimed she was Hays' mistress. In 1996, Dan Rostenkowski pleaded guilty and went to prison for pocketing $9,300 from the House Post Office. That ethical stalwart, the impeached President Bill Clinton, subsequently pardoned him. Speaker Jim Wright resigned over allegations that he profited from a collection of his speeches that were sold in bulk in lieu of speaking fees that were limited by House rules. Wilbur Mills frolicked with a stripper delightfully named Fanne Foxe in Washington's Tidal Basin. There's plenty more for suddenly righteous Democrats to ponder, but this ought to be enough to get them off their "holier-than-thou" platform and take an interest in a bipartisan effort to fix the pathetically broken ethics system.

More recently, some of the same Democrats now lashing Republicans for their real and perceived sins have, themselves, taken money from Abramoff. There may be nothing illegal about taking the money, unless members traded their votes and influence on behalf of Abramoff's clients. It is whether members "sold" their votes and influence that has attracted the attention of the Justice Department.

Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, has carried stories on how Democrats frequently appeal for donations to K Street lobbyists, just like Republicans. So virtue is as difficult to detect among some Democrats as it is among some Republicans. It depends on which party is in the majority and which is in the minority.

Senators Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican, and Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, think they've found a way to solve the ethics problem and restore public confidence in Congress. They have introduced legislation to create a bipartisan and independent commission, not unlike the 9-11 Commission, to recommend reforms to strengthen congressional ethics and make Congress more transparent. Their measure would not allow any sitting member of Congress on the panel, though former members could participate.

In a telephone interview, Coleman said, "Washington is the only place where people break the law and then call for changing the law." He said that while a commission "won't get rid of bad behavior" in Congress, it could hold more members accountable.

The proposed Commission to Strengthen Confidence in Congress (CSCC) would be charged, among other things, with evaluating and reporting the effectiveness of current ethics requirements (obviously not too good given revelations about serial lobbyist Jack Abramoff) and establishing minimum standards for official travel for members and staff.

Members should be required to get advance approval for travel from a special oversight panel specifically established for this purpose. Vouchers should be submitted along with "time cards" that show how many hours will be devoted to work and how many to play. Few would object to a member playing a round of golf as long as he, or she, puts in a full day's work and recreation isn't the main purpose of the trip.

A Web site specifically dedicated to congressional travel and gifts should be established so that the public can have access to the information. Transparency, full disclosure, sunshine laws and other efforts to help us keep track of what elected representatives are doing with our money will bolster public confidence.

If the Coleman-Nelson "reform" proposal is allowed to go the way of previous cleanup efforts, and is simply a means by which Congress lets a scandal blow over so it can get back to business as usual, the cynicism will deepen and the Republicans might find themselves in greater danger in the fall elections than they are now.