Saturday, March 11, 2006

Waiting Us Out

Once again Congress has neatly side-stepped ethics reform by using one of the most time-honored strategies: waiting for the notoriously short attention span of the US public to be diverted elsewhere. This time it was the Dubai Ports World scandal. Americans became so het up over the thought of foreigners (Arabs foreigners, to be precise) controlling our ports that they stopped worrying so much about lobbyists owning their elected representatives. The NY Times has the story.

The drive for a tighter lobbying law, just two months ago a major priority on Capitol Hill, is losing momentum, a victim of shifting political interests, infighting among House Republicans and a growing sense among lawmakers of both parties that wholesale change may not be needed after all.

In January, shortly after the lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to corruption charges, Mr. Dreier and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert called for tough restrictions, including a ban on gifts, meals and privately financed travel. They said their aim was to have legislation drafted by February. But the new majority leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, is not keen on the travel ban, and there is still no legislation.

...The initial fervor for legislation was fueled by the Abramoff scandal, coupled with the resignation of Representative Randy Cunningham, Republican of California, after he pleaded guilty in another corruption case. With the midterm elections on the horizon, lawmakers seemed in a big hurry for reform. Republicans in particular worried that the ethics issue would turn on them the way it did on Democrats in 1994, when Republicans took control of the House.

The initial votes on the Senate bill have shown the limits of the appetite for change. Already a Senate committee has rejected a plan, advanced by Ms. Collins and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, to create an independent office to investigate ethics abuses. And while the Senate did vote this week in favor of a ban on gifts and meals from lobbyists, the real fight will be over whether to limit a much more lucrative perk: private travel, and lawmakers' use of corporate jets.

There has been little political fallout from the Abramoff case, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. A survey by the center in January, the week after Mr. Abramoff's guilty plea, found that just 18 percent of Americans had closely followed the case; by comparison, 32 percent had closely followed President Bush's acknowledgment that he had authorized the National Security Agency to conduct some domestic wiretapping without warrants.

...Outside observers say it will now take another eruption — the indictment of a member of Congress in the Abramoff inquiry, or a similar scandalous event — to put the issue front and center again.

One expert on money in politics, Prof. James A. Thurber of American University, predicted that any legislation would amount to "lobby lite" unless more lawmakers were prosecuted. And Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has testified frequently on lobbying law changes, said: "The fervor for reform in this case was driven by a fear that a match was about to be lit to dry tinder. They were scared to death they would go back home and people would be waiting as they got off the plane with buckets of tar and bales of feathers."
[Emphasis added]

There are a couple of things at play here. First and foremost is the fact that members of Congress consider such things as free travel in style, both on private and governmental business, is a perquisite, an entitlement. That they are expected to 'pay' for such luxury with legislation favorable to their monied hosts doesn't bother them in the least. It's how things get done in Washington.

Equally as troubling is that even when confronted with the corrupting effects of such behavior, they all just shrug, knowing that in a few days or weeks, the furor will die down and they will be able to go back to business as usual.

The only hope for real reform this time around is indeed some indictments issuing from the Abramoff scandal. With any luck at all those indictments will issue one at a time, starting in, oh, say, April.


Blogger Mr. Natural said...

And not much in the way of leadership from the Dems...I keep hoping they will step up for us...

4:20 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home