Cover Story

Money-go-round

"Money-go-round" Continued...

Issue: "Snakepit," Feb. 11, 2006

In another example, Ted Townsend, heir to an Iowa meat-packing fortune, had for several years pushed to build an "indoor rainforest" in his home state, an attraction he thought would draw tourists and tourist dollars. But other Iowans didn't share his enthusiasm for the project, and Mr. Townsend couldn't get any traction. Then, in 2003 he donated $3,000 to Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican. The following year, Mr. Grassley secured a $50 million earmark for the construction of Mr. Townsend's rainforest.

Both the Reid and Grassley situations may have the appearance of quid pro quo, as may Rep. Boehner's votes related to government-backed college loan programs such as those offered by Sallie Mae, a Boehner benefactor. But the legal facts are that donors are entitled to donate and lawmakers are entitled to vote their consciences. Mr. Reid may indeed oppose tribal gambling, and Mssrs. Boehner and Grassley may genuinely believe in the public benefits of federal loan guarantees and rainforests in corn country. But the Justice Department now scrutinizes such scenarios more closely, searching for signs of bribery.

The corruption problem in Congress has long percolated above a toxic concentration of money and power-"too much power," Mr. Flake told USA Today in January. "We Republicans have abused that power badly over the past several years." Mr. Flake's candor rattled through the liberal blogosphere, shoring up charges that it is the GOP that has ushered in the "culture of corruption."

If that were true over the long term, simply eliminating the offending party might fix the problem. Watergate led to a 1974 revision of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, followed by further tweaks in 1976 and 1979. Chinagate-with fresh indictments as recently as 2003-sparked McCain-Feingold, an overhaul that banned soft money and doubled hard-money donation limits to $2,000, and finally passed in 2002.

So why do we still have corruption? "Thirty-five thousand lobbyists and 535 members of Congress," quipped CAGW president Schatz. A fiscal conservative and 20-year watchdog veteran, Mr. Schatz has worked both sides, serving six years as legislative director for former Rep. Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.), then as a lawyer and lobbyist. Mr. Schatz predicts that lobbying reform will be an easy sell in Congress but earmark reform will be tougher. "Members will be unwilling to give up the opportunity to steer money toward their districts. They like being able to talk to the folks back home about the great things they're doing," he said. To be effective, earmark reform must encompass bills of all types and not only appropriations bills. Meanwhile, he said, the root of the current corruption "isn't how many trips are taken or who buys lunch . . . it's the size of government."

Rep. Shadegg and other reformers have been sharply critical of the GOP's recent big-government habit, one that breeds corruption, Mr. Schatz observed, due to "the sheer number of people looking for a way to get something into legislation in a way that's not open and public."

GOP deficit spending is at odds with the party's "Contract with America," the package of promised reforms former Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) used to engineer the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. Among those promises: that the laws applying to ordinary citizens would also apply to Congress, and that Republicans would usher in a new era of fiscal responsibility.

Though the Gingrich Congress in some ways delivered, many Republican voters now feel cuckolded. Bill Clinton left George W. Bush with a $236 billion budget surplus. The 42nd president also left the 43rd with a year-old bear market, a problem compounded by 9/11.

Mr. Bush and the GOP-led Congress responded to those problems with tax cuts that have helped the economy rebound. But they also increased spending across the board, not just on homeland security and defense, and the federal deficit is now $400 billion and growing. And even as Congress grew fat on a pile of pork that more than doubled during his tenure, the president has not vetoed a single bill.

At the pre-leadership-vote meeting of House Republicans in Baltimore, GOP conservatives appealed to their colleagues for a return to the party's roots. "Republicans have been and are the party of reform," said Rep. David Dreier of California.

Mr. Shadegg, also in attendance, acknowledged that "real reform means more than tightening bureaucratic rules; it means fundamental changes to the way Congress does business."

Could this be the time that reform truly takes? "If it doesn't happen now, it's hard to imagine a set of circumstances where there would be more pressure for change," Mr. Keating said. "Between the wasteful spending and the scandals, if [Congress] can't change it now, they might not ever be able to."

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