November 30, 2005
Getting Serious About Corruption

By Jack Kelly

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Cal, pled guilty Monday to accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors, and resigned from Congress. He faces up to ten years in prison when he is sentenced in February.

Perhaps Duke will share a cell with Rep. Bob Ney, R-OH, identified as "Representative #1" in the plea agreement made Nov. 21st by lobbyist Michael Scanlon, who was press secretary to then House GOP Whip Tom Delay, R-Tex.

Scanlon pled guilty to bribing a congressman, and to defrauding Indian tribes of $19.7 million. He is the first domino to fall in the Justice department's investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, another associate of Rep. Delay. There will be more.

"Investigators are looking at half a dozen members of Congress, current and former senior Hill aides, a former deputy secretary of the Interior, and Abramoff's former lobbying colleagues," said the Washington Post.

Ney was the only lawmaker mentioned in Mr. Scanlon's plea agreement, which listed a series of campaign contributions and gifts made "in exchange for a series of official acts."

Democrats have been claiming that corruption in Congress is a new, and uniquely Republican, phenomenon. But among nearly three dozen lawmakers who lobbied the Interior Department to block a license for an Indian casino in Louisiana after receiving contributions from rival tribes represented by Abramoff were many Democrats, among them Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, the senior Democrat on the committee investigating Abramoff.

Democrats, among them President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, accepted illegal contributions from the Chinese government in 1996.

But there is no question that Republicans, who were swept into control of the House of Representatives in 1994 largely because of public outrage over the House banking and House post office scandals, have become what they came to Washington to clean up.

Partisans argue the other party is inherently more corrupt. But the problem is bipartisan, and systemic. Power corrupts. The greater the power is, and the longer that it is held, the more likely it is to be abused.

Systemic problems can be solved only by changing the system. There are three reforms that could break the stranglehold lobbyists have on our politics.

The first is to limit the tenure of members of Congress. If senators were restricted to two consecutive six year terms, and representatives to six consecutive two year terms, much mischief could be avoided.

The second is to give to the president the line item veto, a power currently enjoyed by all but seven state governors. Lobbyists would not go to such great lengths to have pork inserted into appropriations bills if the president could remove it with the stroke of a pen.

Both of these reforms would require constitutional amendments, and neither are sufficient to make a huge dent in the culture of corruption that pervades Washington.

Most important is genuine campaign finance reform. Special interest groups derive their power from the dependence lawmakers in both parties have on them to obtain the funds they require to win re-election. Only when politicians have been weaned from this dependency will there be a substantial reduction in political corruption.

The McCain-Feingold law and earlier attempts at campaign finance reform have faltered mostly because they have wrongly defined the problem as too much money in politics, when the real problem is where the money comes from, and the strings attached to it.

Candidates for federal office should be permitted to accept campaign contributions only from citizens of the United States who are registered to vote in the state from which they are seeking election, or from the political party to which they belong.

There should be limits on how much an individual can give, because no one should be able to own their own congressman. But they should be higher than they are at present.

A form of public financing of elections is required, because political parties cannot constitutionally be forbidden to accept special interest money except as a quid pro quo for receipt of federal funds.

Public outrage is building. If Republicans don't get serious about corruption, we can't be certain the next Congress will be more honest. We can be certain it will be more Democratic.

Jack Kelly is national security columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

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