Scandals are healthy for the body politic. Like fevers and other symptoms of physical illness, they alert us to the diseases that attack our democracy and its government, and the publicity that accompanies major scandals often leads to the removal of the most toxic agents from the system. Such has been the case with the scandal surrounding Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The revelations regarding his transformation from conservative partisan into ultimate Washington fixer have confirmed, for anyone who was still unsure, that Washington under Republican rule is defined by a culture of corruption. And it has removed from the councils of leadership the pre-eminent practitioner of that corruption, Congressman Tom DeLay, who, faced with Abramoff’s decision to rat out his co-conspirators, gave up his quest to return as House majority leader.
So far, so good. But now we get to the tricky part of any political scandal: the question of whether the initial revelations and removals will be misinterpreted as cures for what ails a very sick system. As of now, the scandal has wrought no change in the way business is done in Washington. And there is every reason to believe that the House Republican Caucus will continue to be run by junior DeLays, who amid talk of how everyone must follow the rules will quickly get back to the business of bending those rules in the same direction as did their deposed master. Roy Blunt, the veteran DeLay lieutenant who is the frontrunner to replace his former boss, is not going to change a thing. Blunt’s chief challenger, John Boehner, talks a better line about cleaning up the caucus, but Boehner’s been swimming for years in the same pay-to-play pool as DeLay and Blunt. No one is standing for the GOP leadership as a genuine reformer echoing the honest talk of renegade conservatives like Jeff Flake, who told his fellow Republicans, “We don’t just need new leaders, we need a course correction. This is deeper than just who stands at the head of the party. We have created a system here…that just breeds corruption.” Flake’s right about that, just as he is right to point out that unless Republicans enact “meaningful reforms” now, they may be in the minority after midterm elections. An AP/Ipsos poll, taken after Abramoff accepted a plea deal and agreed to cooperate with a Justice Department investigation of Congressional wrongdoing, found that Americans favored handing control of Congress to the Democrats by a 49-to-36 margin.
But this is not a time for Democrats to stand by and delight in the disarray of the GOP majority, as they did in 2001 when the Enron scandal was unfolding. The revelations about Abramoff’s actions have muddied a lot of Republicans, from George W. Bush and House Speaker Dennis Hastert to pre-eminent GOP fixers like Grover Norquist and Christian right leader Ralph Reed, all the way down to rank-and-filers like Senator Conrad Burns and appropriately named Congressman John Doolittle. But they have also dirtied some Democrats, including Senate minority leader Harry Reid, who accepted more than $66,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff’s operations. Reid now says the Republican-led Congress is “the most corrupt in history.” Perhaps, but that does not mean that, come November, the American people will necessarily decide that Washington’s ills are best addressed by shuffling control of Congress. If Democrats want to be taken seriously as the party of reform, they should follow the lead of Senator Russ Feingold. Feingold’s not playing any games with this scandal; though he received no money from Abramoff or the lobbyist’s associates, he has gone so far as to return a small contribution from a political action committee linked to a powerful Washington law firm, Greenberg Traurig, for which Abramoff once worked.
Feingold understands that Democrats who would identify themselves as reformers have to start with clean hands. He also understands that reformers need more than symbolism; they need a program. While there are moves afoot to enact slightly tougher controls on the free meals, entertainment and travel that members of Congress now accept from lobbyists, Feingold and Massachusetts Democrat Marty Meehan are pushing for an appropriately aggressive agenda that would bar gifts from lobbyists to members of Congress and Hill staffers, would double–to two years–the time retiring lawmakers must wait before lobbying Congress and double to $100,000 the fine for failing to file lobbying reports.
Feingold and Meehan have been proposing these measures for almost a year. With the opening provided by the Abramoff scandal, they should go even further. For instance, Feingold and Meehan want lobbyists to file quarterly reports on their activities. But why shouldn’t lobbyists file weekly, or daily, and why shouldn’t Congress members and their staff be required to file daily reports on their meetings with lobbyists and the pending legislation discussed? And why bar gifts from lobbyists without barring the ultimate benefit they direct to politicians: huge campaign contributions, which Feingold correctly identifies as “legalized bribery”? Voters are not going to get very excited about a reform agenda that lacks meaningful campaign finance reforms, including voluntary public financing for federal candidates who agree to raise no private money and abide by spending limits.
Public financing is essential, as it signals a recognition that Congress has been corrupted not by Abramoff but by the steady flow of corporate campaign contributions that provide lobbyists with the muscle to influence members of both parties to such an extent that those who are supposed to be regulated are writing the rules–literally. That, and not the details of Abramoff’s dirty dealing, is what Americans think of when they hear the term “culture of corruption.” And only by promising to change that culture, with ethics and campaign finance reforms designed to dramatically reduce the ability of corporate interests to call the tune in Washington, will Democrats get a hearing from the great mass of Americans who believe that both parties are compromised. If Democrats are serious about becoming the party of reform, they cannot merely treat the symptoms that the latest scandal has exposed. The cure will be complete only when a corporate lobbyist like Jack Abramoff has no more influence in Washington than a constituent in Weirton or Waukesha or Walla Walla.