Feature

Congress

Does corruption have a cure?

House Speaker Dennis Hastert has suffered a terrible shock, said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. It turns out that his 'œfellow Republicans have been running a den of iniquity right under his nose.' Who would have thought it? Hastert was faced with the awful truth a few weeks back, when Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to illegally plying federal lawmakers with a smorgasbord of gifts. To win Republican votes, Abramoff admitted, he treated congressmen to all-expenses-paid junkets to foreign golf resorts and beaches, free dinners at his lavish Washington steakhouse, jobs for their spouses, and skybox sports seats. Last week, the suddenly virtuous Hastert proposed a total ban on travel junkets subsidized by outside groups, and the lowering of gift limits to congressmen from $50 to $20. The next day, Democrats one-upped him by proposing to ban gifts to lawmakers altogether, said The Philadelphia Inquirer in an editorial. If this newfound spirit of reform keeps up, 'œmembers of Congress won't be able to accept anything more costly than a key chain.'

That would certainly be a welcome change, said Jay Bookman in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Washington has always been a dirty place, but ever since Republicans took over Congress and the White House, the scale of the corruption has been breathtaking. Since 2000, the number of lobbyists has doubled to more than 34,000. Last year, this army of special interests spent $193 million a month 'œwining, dining, and seducing federal officials.' It was, by and large, an excellent investment, bringing such industries as mining and meatpacking blessed relief from federal regulation and oversight (does the phrase 'œSago Mine disaster' ring a bell?), and a disastrous Medicare prescription program designed by the pharmaceutical companies. Another sure indicator of the lobbyists' influence is the 14,000 pork-barrel projects lawmakers inserted into the federal budget last year—up from 1,439 a decade ago. 'œThe doors to the federal chicken coop have been thrown open, and the predators have descended en masse.'

But eliminating gifts and junkets won't close those doors, said John Fund in The Wall Street Journal. Lobbyists also buy influence through campaign contributions, and perfectly legal wining and dining of federal bureaucrats. 'œSo long as government grows more powerful, money will find its way to Washington to attempt to influence it.' In such a climate, 'œeven conservatives get caught up in the care and feeding of the state.' The only lasting solution is to dramatically reduce the size of government, by eliminating pork-barrel spending entirely. Only then will Congress stop wasting billions on weapons the Pentagon doesn't want, museums and research projects that have no purpose, and bridges and roads no one really needs.

I'm afraid even that won't do the trick, said Dick Meyer in CBSnews.com. Even if pork is eliminated, and free dinners and junkets are banned, lobbyists will still be able to buy influence by making legal campaign contributions. The No. 1 priority of congressmen is to get re-elected, and money is what makes that happen. Currently, 98 percent of all incumbents win back their seats, largely because special interests fill their war chests with cash. It's certainly not their constituents who are laying out all those millions: 'œOnly about 0.64 percent of the U.S. adult population made a political donation in 2003'“4.' To truly change Washington's corrupt culture, therefore, we'd have to adopt public financing of all federal campaigns, from Congress to the presidency, with strict spending limits. People who hold office could then concentrate on public service, instead of soliciting contributions. That kind of reform might actually clean up Washington—which is why, unfortunately, it'll never happen.

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