Doolittle, Too Late

Posted: Apr 23, 2007 4:44 PM

It's sad when someone you've known for decades gets in trouble and you're not surprised.

After the FBI raided the home of California's Rep. John Doolittle this month in search of records from the fund-raising company run by his wife, Julie, Republican House leaders didn't wait even a day before they pressured him to step down from his seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee. Everyone knows that such a raid only occurs after a judge has issued a search warrant in response to government claims that there is probable cause a crime has been committed.

In Mr. Doolittle's case, it appears the FBI is exploring allegations that Mrs. Doolittle received thousands of dollars from lobbyist turned felon Jack Abramoff for phantom work in exchange for favors Mr. Doolittle might have performed for Abramoff clients. Mr. Doolittle insists he and his wife will be cleared.

But political observers back in Mr. Doolittle's hometown of Sacramento agree his congressional career is over. Last year, publicity about his ties to Mr. Abramoff caused his popularity to plummet. He won re-election by only 3% in a district President Bush carried by 24% in 2004. Now he is almost certain to face a primary challenge from a local GOP state legislator, as Republicans scramble to make sure the seat stays in their hands.

It will be a sad end to a political career that began with such promise. In 1980, when I met Mr. Doolittle, he was a 30-year-old lawyer and political upstart and I was a California college student. Mr. Doolittle had just defeated an incumbent Democratic state senator in Sacramento County, which had elected only one Republican to partisan office in the past generation (and she soon switched parties).

Mr. Doolittle, a confirmed Reaganite, inspired an entire generation of local Republicans to take advantage of demographic changes in the state's capital. Today, Sacramento County often votes for Republican statewide candidates, and outside of the central city elects only Republicans to the Legislature and Congress. In the state Senate, Mr. Doolittle amassed a solid record as a fiscal conservative and championed ethics reform in the wake of an FBI sting operation that sent several legislators to jail. In 1990, he ran for and won a seat in Congress.

But there were already warning signs that Mr. Doolittle was taking on the look and feel of a career politician. The same year he won his House seat he was a vociferous opponent of a successful ballot measure imposing term limits on state legislators. "We won't be able to attract quality candidates," complained Mr. Doolittle. "What incentive would there be for someone with kids in school to run? No pension benefits. You can only stay six years. It would mean sacrificing those years of your life."

When Mr. Doolittle went to Washington, he clearly didn't intend to sacrifice much. True, he gained headlines as a member of the "Gang of Seven," a group of reform-minded freshmen who tweaked Democratic leaders for their abuse of the House Bank and Post Office. But at the same time, just two months after taking office, the ostensible reformer teamed up with Democrat Maxine Waters, a left-liberal firebrand with whom he'd served in the Legislature and who went to Congress in the same election as he did. Together, the two proposed a wish list of new perks that would make even European Union bureaucrats blush.

The proposed new work-related amenities included a pooled "service corps" to do errands for members of Congress and drive them to the airport, the right to make fund raising telephone calls from their government offices, and a per diem stipend for living expenses for every day Congress was in session. Other suggestions included "increased attention to updating and decorating capital offices" and providing every member with an additional automobile while he was in Washington. Many of these ideas were inspired by perks he and Ms. Waters had enjoyed in the California Legislature, but which voters had just expressed dissatisfaction with by imposing term limits and slashing the budget for legislative staff.

When word of the Doolittle-Waters memo leaked to the papers, the freshman Republican reacted with indignation that Democrats in the House leadership had blown his cover. But Mr. Doolittle continued to behave like a perkoholic. In 2001, after he won a coveted seat on Appropriations Committee, Congress's "favor factory," he tried to use his increased leverage there to team up once again with Ms. Waters to float his per diem proposal. The two members proposed that the House pay each member $165 a day for expenses while Congress was in session.

This time, Mr. Doolittle won backing for his idea from Ohio's Rep. Bob Ney, the new chairman of the House Administration Committee. But GOP leaders shot it down, in a rare example of their recognizing how power had corrupted the ideals of their "Republican revolution." Would that they had shown similar wisdom in stopping the explosive growth of pork-barrel "earmark" projects that later did so much to anger GOP fiscal conservatives.

Mr. Ney and Mr. Doolittle went their separate ways, but their paths would cross years later in the Abramoff investigation. Last year, Mr. Doolittle had to hire a criminal defense lawyer to deal with allegations that his wife's consulting work for Mr. Abramoff had been improper. Mr. Ney withdrew from his re-election race and pleaded guilty in October to accepting gifts from Mr. Abramoff in exchange for taking official actions that aided the lobbyist's clients.

Mr. Ney was brought down in large part because Neil Volz, his former chief of staff who later went to work for Mr. Abramoff, cooperated with prosecutors in building their case. The Sacramento Bee reports that Kevin Ring, a former Doolittle aide who also later worked in Mr. Abramoff's office, also "sought help from the congressman on behalf of [Abramoff] clients and now is believed to be talking to federal prosecutors." Mr. Ring resigned from his position at a Washington law firm on the very day Mr. Doolittle's home was raided by the FBI.

Fiscal conservatives will shed few tears over Mr. Doolittle's likely departure from Congress. Ever since he joined the Appropriations Committee in 2001, he has been preoccupied with shoveling pork back to his district, telling one reporter he had adapted his small-government principles to the system Congress had created to spend money: "You work with what you've got." In conversations with me, he would marvel at how well Democrats and Republicans got along on the Appropriations Committee because "we so often have the same priorities"--namely spending other people's money.

Mr. Doolittle's near-death experience at the polls last November did not prompt a return to his ideological roots. He had already angered voters in Roseville, the largest city in his district, by opposing their ultimately successful efforts to repeal a utility tax through a ballot measure. Then this month, the former antitax champion appeared before the Sacramento Bee's editorial board and delighted them with his apparent surrender on a proposed half-cent sales-tax increase to pay for local transportation projects in the Roseville area.

"My feeling is the people, if they know what the money is going for, are OK with it," he said of the proposed tax hike. "They want better roads and transportation. . . . I don't find any inconsistency between conservative political philosophy and recognizing that we have government there to meet certain needs." This after two decades of Mr. Doolittle assuring audiences in his district that local development was beneficial in part because "it paid for itself" and wouldn't require higher taxes.

Mr. Doolittle's fall from grace will no doubt be used as evidence for how the Republican Congress lost its way during its 12 years in power. And it's true that the onetime reformer has morphed into a symbol of much of what he used to fight against. But Mr. Doolittle started to become seduced by power even before 1994, while he was still in the minority and plotting schemes for new perks with liberal Democrats.

I called Mr. Doolittle's office early Friday to ask for his side of the story. Over the years, I have always found it very easy to talk with him, our conversations invariably beginning with my parents, who are his constituents. But this time was different. I never heard back from anyone. To me that's an ominous sign.

A couple of his House colleagues think so too. One said that the former term-limits opponent had himself "become a walking advertisement for them." Another remarked on the changes he had seen in the man. "John isn't the ideological conservative he used to be. He talks more and more like a lawyer making the best case for whatever he's doing right now."

Sadly, regarding Mr. Doolittle's efforts to remain in Congress I fear he has a weak case and a bad client.