Cover Story

Money-go-round

With Congress buying what lobbyists sell, and selling what taxpayers earn, is real reform realistic?

Issue: "Snakepit," Feb. 11, 2006

"I believe there will be more scandals, there will be more indictments, and more people going to jail," said Arizona Republican John McCain, speaking about government corruption outside the Capitol one bright afternoon. "There are probably scandals happening while we speak. The system is badly broken."

Sen. McCain could have spoken those words last week. But he didn't: The career reformer said that to Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew in early 1998 just after then-Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott used parliamentary poison to kill McCain-Feingold, a campaign-finance reform bill introduced in the wake of Chinagate.

In that 1996 scandal, foreign donors poured millions into Democratic campaign coffers in 40 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Except for the name of the offending party, little has changed a decade later: Mr. McCain is still agitating for reform and government officials still appear to be trading influence for money.

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As the tentacles of the Republican-dominated Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal slither across Capitol Hill, the public is becoming increasingly aware of an entrenched pay-to-play system: Well-heeled lobbyists pamper lawmakers with illicit perks like five-star golf vacations, posh meals, and private-jet travel with in-flight champagne; meanwhile, other legislators ride a money-go-round on which they repay campaign donors with political favors and "earmarks," special-interest handouts that beget more donations which, in turn, beget still more favors and handouts.

Congress returned from its six-week recess last week with new awareness that all this begetting is begetting voter attention. After 60 congressional conservatives met with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Baltimore to discuss the future of party leadership, GOP members caucused, listened to speeches of leadership candidates, and then made a surprising choice: Instead of giving temporary House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) the job permanently, they turned the reins over to Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, hoping he can clean up the party's image before they face voters in November.

While questionable Capitol Hill dealings cross party lines, it is the GOP now generating guilty pleas and indictments, including those of Mr. Abramoff and his associate, Michael Scanlon; Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.); and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, a recipient of Abramoff largess, on charges unrelated to the über-lobbyist.

Similar handwriting may be on the wall for Rep. Bob Ney, whom Mr. Scanlon referred to in a plea agreement as "Representative #1." Mr. Scanlon alleged that he and Mr. Abramoff showered the Ohio Republican with baubles like lavish trips and exclusive event tickets in return for "official acts and influence."

With midterm elections just nine months away, the prospect of voter backlash is prompting the GOP to listen more closely to reformers like Mr. McCain, his fellow Arizona Republicans, Reps. Jeff Flake and John Shadegg, and others. But what kinds of reforms can substantially inoculate lawmakers from the Beltway temptations that have led so many public servants to ruin?

Candidates in last week's majority-leader vote offered ideas amid a race that embodied a broader storyline: reform vs. the status quo. The contest gave "the perception that Republicans are worried about getting reelected and they want both to send a message and set the agenda for more reform," said Club for Growth executive director David Keating.

Rep. Blunt stepped temporarily into the House's top leadership billet after Mr. DeLay resigned in the wake of his indictment last year. But Mr. Blunt is an earmark lover who recently managed to insert into the 2006 defense appropriations bill $27.1 million in special projects for his southwest Missouri district. As GOP whip, he also racked up an impressive record of 50 consecutive vote-counting victories and zero defeats, earning a DeLay-like reputation for hand-over-fist fundraising and close ties to K Street lobbyists.

That led some Republicans, desperate to distance the party from any pay-to-play taint, to back Rep. Boehner. Mr. Boehner (pronounced "bay-ner") cut his teeth in Congress as a member of the so-called "Gang of Seven" that clamped down on congressional perks in the wake of the House Banking and Post Office scandals that took down Democratic icon Dan Rostenkowski and others in the early 1990s. When Mr. Boehner on Jan. 9 threw his hat into the majority-leader ring, he positioned himself as the bold reformer, the opposite number to establishment candidate Blunt.

But for some House Republicans, Mr. Boehner's ties to K Street were still too close. With reform (and the possibility of more GOP indictments) in the air, Mr. Shadegg entered the race as a dark horse. A member of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Mr. Shadegg has been an outspoken critic of profligate GOP spending, and he gained 40 votes on the leadership race's first ballot. That was only good enough for third, though, and following Mr. Shadegg's withdrawal most of his supporters turned to Mr. Boehner. The Ohio Republican won on the second ballot, 122-109.

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