January 26, 2006
Capitol Hill's Lobbying Scandal Isn't All Bad News

By Mark Davis

We're a funny country when it comes to outrage. Our decisions about what sets us off are often unpredictable.

As individuals, we disagree about what should spark American anger. Conservatives can't believe more people were not furious with Bill Clinton; liberals are baffled that the Bush wiretaps are not unanimously heralded as the New Watergate.

Into this intriguing mix drops the lobbying scandal – the story of crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the members of Congress who received money from him.

Will this awaken a righteous indignation in the electorate that will have ripple effects lasting several elections? Will Mr. Abramoff drag several congressmen with him into the reputational abyss?

Don't bet on either one.

When the story first broke, reporters were breathless in their anticipation of congressional careers dashed against the rocks of avarice. Network news packages urged us to brace for the sight and sound of careers collapsing.

I'll believe it when I see it.

There is no doubt that Mr. Abramoff is a bad guy. But there are miles of distance between unearthing one crooked lobbyist's tentacles and confirming the "culture of corruption" that is on every Democrat index card in this election year.

Not that some won't leap to that journey. Time magazine's comically conspiratorial tone upon seeing (but not publishing) photographs of President Bush with Mr. Abramoff reveals the longing it shares with Mr. Bush's political enemies for this to become a major story.

A key ingredient is missing, however: a large body of Americans who care. Jack Abramoff isn't exactly the buzz at water coolers and coffee shops across most of America.

Sure, there are plenty of Americans who follow the sport of politics who are pretty fired up about it, and, heaven knows, both parties are positioning to be the knights on white horses who ride in with just the right flavor of reform.

But we will have to see a body count before this lobbying scandal approaches a big deal in the November elections.

That's not totally implausible. Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio is in a world of trouble amid allegations that Mr. Abramoff gave him gifts and contributions in return for a promise to use his office to aid Mr. Abramoff's clients.

While we wait to see whether that sticks and whether there are other casualties, this story has actually yielded a benefit – a fairly honest debate about how to get lobbying abuse under control.

Republicans have an urgent interest in portraying themselves as agents for change. The majority of Abramoff money went to Republicans, and, as the majority party, any congressional scandal will accrue to their detriment to some degree.

For their part, on the occasions when Democrats have put aside the dishonest "culture of corruption" mantra, they, too, have offered helpful ideas.

As a result, we might see changes in how much members of Congress can accept from lobbyists. We might see changes in the practice of "earmarking" legislation with pet priorities that are not always honorable and not always detected.

Just as the Enron meltdown was a warning to businesses that they misbehave at their peril, lawmakers are now looking in the mirror harder than ever, knowing that the public, at least for the moment, has caught a whiff of something we have always said we were upset about but did precious little to remedy.

Some problems are so deep and pervasive that we grow numb. The notion of politicians on the take is a burden we usually powerlessly endure in a nation that re-elects even highly flawed incumbents at an astronomically high rate.

But every once in a while, our short attention spans are jolted by events that galvanize voter attention and maybe even action.

After the Abramoff political bodies are buried, we may be left with a Congress that crafts and actually pays attention to improved ethics rules.

And that will last as long as we choose to pay attention.

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

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