The right way to reform

Posted: Jan 20, 2006 12:05 AM

The Republican caucus in the House of Representatives is having an election to decide who should be the new majority leader. Who among us can contain his excitement? Because large majorities of Americans cannot name the chief justice of the United States or the speaker of the House, and roughly half can't name their own congressman, my guess is: a lot of us.

But that doesn't mean that it's not a big deal. Three guys are running to be Tom DeLay's replacement. DeLay Inc., battered by a fairly bogus prosecution in Texas, was finally undone by the unfolding L'Affaire Abramoff - a real scandal.

There are two overlapping stories here: what's good for the country, and what's good for the GOP. They aren't necessarily the same thing, though they could be.

Let's start with the GOP. Much to the chagrin of the Democrats, congressional Republicans have gotten the message that their hold on power is threatened by the perception - not entirely undeserved - that they've become a K Street escort service.

Democrats are vexed for the simple reason that, lacking any other ideas, they hoped to run on GOP "corruption" in the 2006 elections. The problem, for them, is that there's time for Republicans to fix their image before November.

That's why the three candidates for majority leader are in the midst of a bidding war to prove they are the most committed to "reform." All three - Roy Blunt of Missouri, John A. Boehner of Ohio and John Shadegg of Arizona - have solid conservative voting records, so each is campaigning on who will be the most effective "reformer." I am reserving my endorsement for the candidate who, like a Yakuza henchman, agrees to lop off a pinkie on "Meet the Press" in penance for GOP overspending these last few years.

No doubt many Republicans are truly committed to the cause of reform on the merits. But this seems to be the only issue in the race - and that's a good sign because it means the GOP recognizes the depth of its image problem. It's nice when politicians do stuff for the right reasons, but it's more reassuring when doing the right thing actually happens to be in their self-interest. If the GOP can get back on track as the party of limited but competent government, the Republican realignment of the last decade could be set in stone for a generation.

Which brings us to what's good for the nation. "Reform" is a tricky word. It means both "improvement" and "change in shape." The media tend to get this confused - a lot - treating any rearrangement of the status quo as an improvement. You can reform Silly Putty all day, but it's still Silly Putty.

One broad category of reforms involves making it harder for "lobbyists" - a term that includes everyone from the American Civil Liberties Union to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association - to influence congressmen. This includes that perennial panacea, campaign finance reform. Other ideas include banning free lunches for congressmen, cutting back on privately funded travel to swanky golf resorts and ski lodges, and restricting lobbying by ex-congressmen.

This is an updating of the refrain we've heard for 30 years from the "eat your spinach" good-government types.

Individually and at the margins, some of these proposals may make sense. For example, reformers are "considering" revoking the pensions of congressmen convicted of a felony committed in the course of their professional duties. (Revoking the pensions of representatives who, say, rob banks in their off hours is not on the table at this time.)

But at the end of the day, these reforms overlook the fact that we've been ratcheting up such rules for 30 years and yet every few years there's another "corruption crisis." Why? Because the government keeps swatting away flies rather than cleaning out the stable.

Lasting reform wouldn't come up with a new obstacle course for money to find its way into politics; it would reduce the incentive to spend money on politicians in the first place. Lobbyists would have no reason to pester and bribe a government that minded its own business. Microsoft and Wal-Mart, for example, spent virtually nothing on lobbying Washington until Washington began treating them like pinatas.

Republicans have an opportunity to reform politics by reforming government. If all they do is buy into the off-the-shelf rules that created this mess in the first place, they might postpone disaster past the 2006 elections. But you can be sure we'll be back at this same spot again.

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