"Forget It, Jake. It's Chinatown." Actually, It's Worse ...
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
by Michael Winship
The time has come that the American people know exactly what their Representatives are doing here in Washington. Are they feeding at the public trough, taking lobbyist-paid vacations, getting wined and dined by special interest groups? Or are they working hard to represent their constituents? The people, the American people, have a right to know. -- Rep. Tom DeLay, on the House floor, November 16, 1995
All of my political work is driven by philosophical interests, not by a desire to gain wealth. -- Jack Abramoff, quoted in the New York Times, April 3, 2002
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According to a USA Today/CNN poll, 49% of those questioned believe, "most members of Congress are corrupt." And last month's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll reports that 79% of the public thinks "both parties are equally to blame for ... ethical lapses."
On the one hand, such attitudes are understandable. When exposed to the hypocrisy typified by the quotes above, and with the knowledge that, in reversed circumstances, Democrats can be just as sanctimonious, it's easy to say a pox on both your houses -- and the Senate, 1600 Pennsylvania and the horse you rode in on.
What's more, the tale of corruption unfolding on an hourly basis in Washington is complicated. Much easier to throw up one's hands and say, "Everybody does it, nothing's going to change," than to stop and try to understand the depths to which government has sunk. As a fellow gumshoe says to Jack Nicholson in a classic movie line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
That would be a huge mistake. Because this time it's different: the vast and systematic nature of the graft generated by the Republicans' K Street Project makes it worse than anything since Harding and Teapot Dome, Ulysses Grant and the Whiskey Ring, Nixon and Watergate. Modest estimates put the number of legislators caught up in the Jack Abramoff mess from twelve to twenty; last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that it could be as many as sixty.
And the corruption rolls on beyond the sordid Abramoff mess. To cite three examples (in just the California congressional delegation alone):
After Rep. Duke Cunningham's guilty plea to accepting $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for defense contracts, the San Diego Tribune reported that California Congressman Duncan Hunter, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, worked with Cunningham to secure $190 million in defense contracts for a system to digitize printed documents that the Pentagon didn't need or want. The two companies manufacturing the system were generous in campaign contributions to Hunter.
The San Diego paper also revealed that Congressman Jerry Lewis, chair of the House Appropriations Committee (and a dark horse candidate to replace DeLay as majority leader), "has greenlighted hundreds of millions of dollars in federal projects for clients of one of his closest friends, lobbyist and former Congressman Bill Lowery ...
"Lowery, the partners at his firm and their clients have donated 37% of the $1.3 million that Lewis' political action committee received in the past six years."
Finally, Sunday's Los Angeles Times reported that California Reps. John Doolittle and Richard Pombo, working with Tom DeLay, "used their official positions to try to stop a federal investigation of a wealthy Texas businessman [Charles Hurwitz] who provided them with political contributions."
The FDIC was trying to fine Hurwitz $300 million for his role in the collapse of a Texas savings and loan. According to the Times, Doolittle and Pombo "used their power as members of the House Resources Committee to subpoena the agency's confidential records on the case, including details of the evidence FDIC investigators had compiled on Hurwitz.
"Then, in 2001, the two congressmen inserted many of the sensitive documents into the Congressional Record, making them public and accessible to Hurwitz's lawyers, a move that FDIC officials said damaged the government's ability to pursue the banker.
"The FDIC's chief spokesman characterized what Doolittle and Pombo did as 'a seamy abuse of the legislative process.' But soon afterward, in 2002, the FDIC dropped its case against Hurwitz ..."
Note that all of the aforementioned House members are Republicans. Sure, Democrats accepted money from folks involved in the Abramoff scandal, too, but, as New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks noted, "That's a great GOP talking point: some Democrats are so sleazy, they get involved with the likes of us."
The figures show, as Rik Hertzberg writes in this week's New Yorker, that, "By the standard of straight (apparently legal) campaign contributions, the scandal is sixty-four per cent Republican: of the $5.3 million Abramoff funneled to candidates and PACs through clients and associates from 1999 through 2004, 'only' $1.9 million went to Democrats. But Abramoff, who is forty-six, has been a Republican operative since his college days. Every dollar of his personal political giving -- two hundred thousand dollars since 2000 -- has gone to Republicans. He is a Bush-Cheney 'Pioneer,' meaning he raised more than a hundred grand for the ticket. The shinier baubles -- skybox fund-raisers, jobs for wives, lavish golfing trips, meals at Abramoff's upscale restaurant -- went almost exclusively to Republicans, especially those in the circle of Tom DeLay ... And of those fingered in the Abramoff indictments as being involved in unlawful activities, from Abramoff himself to 'Representative #1' and 'Staffer B.' one hundred per cent are Republicans."
Chances are, and evidence seems to indicate that any further upcoming indictments will likely be of Republicans. After all, what's the point of bribing the folks who aren't in power? (Time Magazine reported over the weekend that before he officially copped his plea, Duke Cunningham was wearing a Fed-supplied wire -- who knows what additional, overheard larceny it may reveal?).
"Why are you doing it?" Jack Nicholson asks the villain of "Chinatown." "How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can't already afford?" The bad guy says it's about the future, but as ever, it's about power. It's about a whole, rotten system of kickbacks, of pay to play and quid pro quo.
Both parties are rushing to put forward their plans for lobby reform, but as Mark Schmitt, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, insists, "This is not a lobbying scandal. It's a betrayal-of-public-trust scandal. Lobbyists have no power, no influence, until a public servant gives them power ... Abramoff did lots of terrible things and should go to jail, but never forget that every single criminal and unethical act of his was made possible by a public official."
So you want real reform? Come November, throw the elected rascals out.
Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former
writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger
Post Newspapers in upstate New York.