Is there a culture of corruption in the U.S. Congress? As my kids might have said to me when they were in third grade, “Do bears poop in the forest?” On November 7, voters reacted to their own palpable sense of the ubiquity of the corruption by pooping on enough majority party incumbents in Congress to turn both the House and Senate over to the Democrats. Of course, the scandal and sense of the culture of corruption was not the only, or even the major, issue driving the vote—that distinction goes to Iraq. But corruption was significant enough to make a real difference, helping to oust several lawmakers with their own ties to scandals, including Senator Conrad Burns of Montana, Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania and Rep. Richard Pombo of California, along with the loss of the otherwise strongly Republican open seats vacated by Tom DeLay and Mark Foley.
The assumption that money distorts democratic politics is so old that by now it has deeply rooted itself in American folklore. It was Mark Twain himself who famously said, well over a century ago, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress.” More recently, a variety of tart humor messages circulating on the Internet have set out to prove Twain right: To wit, members of the House of Representatives are far more likely than any average group of 435 adult Americans to have declared bankruptcy, been delinquent in alimony and child support payments, had their taxes audited, flunked or been thrown out of college, and been arrested for drunk driving—among other tawdry adventures. Urban legend or not, the frequency of these assertions underscores the widespread belief in the culture that politicians are by nature corrupt, and that any scandal is just business as usual—only this time, they got caught.
In the past, we could admire Twain’s irascible wit, chuckle at the e-mail humor, lap up the scandal du jour in the morning paper, roll our eyes and get on with life. But these days political corruption is so diverse and abundant that it demands not just disgust, but serious attention. We are not faced merely with a series of isolated miscreants—the garden-variety corruption that inevitably crops up when human beings, power and money intersect. Things today are well below and beyond the norm. Just consider the news from this past October, as I wrote this article:
- Susan Ralston, a senior White House aide and top assistant to Karl Rove, resigned on October 6 after a House Government Reform Committee investigation showed nearly 500 contacts between White House officials and convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his staff. During the investigation it came out that on numerous occasions Ralston asked Abramoff, her former employer, for expensive tickets to sporting and entertainment events. The committee investigation also showed that several non-profit organizations, including one run by conservative activist Grover Norquist, had actively connived with Abramoff to launder money in order to evade the laws and rules preventing lobbyists from paying for congressional travel, and to disguise the sources of millions of dollars of income going to Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed, among others.
- On October 11, the Wall Street Journal detailed the millions of dollars Rep. Charles Taylor (R-NC) had made from real estate deals enhanced by earmarks he aggressively pursued for North Carolina.
- On October 13, Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) pled guilty to a variety of offenses stemming from his relationship with Jack Abramoff that included favors to Ney in return for official actions on his part, with a sentence to follow of 27 months in jail. An October 15, a Los Angeles Times story outlined e-mail traffic showing that Abramoff had asked White House Political Director Ken Mehlman (recently departed chairman of the Republican National Committee) to arrange for government official Alan Stayman to be fired. At the U.S. State Department, Stayman had long been an advocate for improving labor practices in the Northern Marianas Islands, where sweatshop operators had hired Abramoff as their chief lobbyist. The e-mail exchange suggested that Mehlman complied with Abramoff’s request: Stayman was fired.
- In mid-October, Rep. John Sweeney (R-NY) fell into the Abramoff morass when it was revealed that he failed to disclose that his trip to the Northern Marianas in 2001 with Abramoff staffer (and former Tom DeLay aide) Tony Rudy was paid for by the Saipan Chamber of Commerce in violation of House ethics rules.
On October 16, FBI raids targeting the daughter of Weldon undercut vociferous denials that he was under investigation for steering lucrative lobbying contracts to his daughter from Russian and Serbian interests. Washington Post investigations suggested a series of aggressive actions on Weldon’s part for several of these interests even as his daughter was garnering large fees from them. The next day, USA Today’s lead story, “Relatives have ‘inside track’ in lobbying for tax dollars”, noted:
Lobbying groups employed 30 family members last year to influence spending bills that their relatives with ties to the House and Senate appropriations committees oversaw or helped write, a USA Today investigation found. Combined, they generated millions of dollars in fees for themselves or their firms. The connections are so pervasive that, in 2005 alone, appropriations bills contained about $750 million for projects championed by lobbyists whose relatives were involved in writing the spending bills.
- On October 17, Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, released—over the objections of the committee chair Peter Hoekstra (R-MI)—an investigative report indicating that former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) had steered $80 million in intelligence-related contracts to two individuals in return for hefty bribes, in the process bullying and coercing staff and others to achieve the goal.
- In the fall of 2006, investigations of several lawmakers besides Bob Ney were ongoing, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) and Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA), as was the investigation of allegations involving senior Interior Department officials. Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) skyrocketed to notoriety when the FBI discovered $90,000 in cash, tied via wiretaps to bribes, hidden in his freezer, and followed up with an aggressive raid on Jefferson’s congressional office.
- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) faced controversy over his failure to record or disclose a land transfer to a corporation until well after the land was sold for a substantial profit, and used leadership PAC funds to pay for Christmas gifts for employees at the Ritz Carlton condominium where he lives (he subsequently revised his disclosure statement and paid for the gifts out of personal funds).
- David Safavian, another Abramoff associate who had been the Chief of Staff of the General Services Administration, was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison on charges including obstruction of justice and making false statements under oath.
Incredibly, only the tawdriness of the Mark Foley (R-FL) page scandal seemed to finally spur the House Ethics Committee to serious action, as a stream of staffers and lawmakers appeared in some cases to give clearly contradictory stories about a possible cover-up. Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI) emerged from a closed-door session with the Ethics Committee to tell reporters on October 17 that the Page Board, of which he was the only Democratic member, had held recent conference calls on other accusations of impropriety with pages, but not those concerning Foley. Such is life on Capitol Dunghill.
These scandals are not just a series of isolated, one-off events. To be sure, some of the allegations and investigations might be attributed to overzealous Federal prosecutors or reporters’ voracious appetite for scandalmongering. But the sheer weight of the allegations, the breadth of the scandals and the evidence already in hand of serious chicanery make it clear that the problem is a systemic one: “Regular order” on Capitol Hill—the web of norms and rules that regulate legislative conduct—has collapsed. It has done so for two overlapping and mutually reinforcing reasons: First has been the astonishing level of majority-party hubris and entitlement, the likes of which America hasn’t seen since the fabled Gilded Age of the 1870s; second is the virtual disappearance of the ethics enforcement process.
Hubris and Entitlement
The story of Congress’ dealings with lobbying groups like the Investment Company Institute (ICI) paint a clear picture of the rise of Republican hubris and entitlement. According to the Washington Post, in 2003 staff members and possibly Rep. Mike Oxley (R-OH), the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, demanded that the ICI, the major trade association for mutual fund companies, fire its Democratic chief lobbyist and replace her with a Republican designated by the committee. The demands were backed up by the threat of hearings scheduled on whether mutual funds had overcharged their customers and withheld important information. If the committee’s demands were not met, the staffers told ICI, the hearings could turn ugly.
This was not the first time Republicans in Congress had made this kind of threat. In 1998, Republican leaders bristled at a decision by the Electronic Industries Association (EIA) to hire former Congressman Dave McCurdy (D-OK) as its head instead of their choice, former Republican Congressman Bill Paxon (R-NY). They struck back by postponing a vote favored by the EIA that was also required to implement two international treaties about intellectual property rights. The EIA eventually got its treaties, but that series of events resulted in a rebuke by the House Ethics Committee of then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX)—the first of his several run-ins with the committee.
But the threats against the ICI were about more than just delaying a vote. In this case, Republicans were brandishing a stick of embarrassing hearings followed by punitive legislation, intimidating an entire industry for partisan gain. It’s difficult to see this as anything other than a fundamental abuse of power.
To be sure, sweetheart relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers are nothing new. When he was Senate majority leader, Lyndon Baines Johnson was in deep with a number of lobbyists in Austin, Texas and Washington, DC, including Thomas G. “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran, the former FDR brain-truster who became a top lobbyist, and with whom Johnson had a long-standing relationship. In her 1992 book Scandal, Suzanne Garment noted that if modern standards had been applied to Corcoran, “he would probably have been under continuous indictment for offenses such as attempted bribery and conspiracy to make illegal campaign contributions.” In The Path to Power (1981), Robert Caro described how Johnson received bags of cash that had been channeled through lobbyists and oilmen for his first Senate campaign. Other career politicians like Jack Brooks (D-TX) could stand toe-to-toe with Johnson in intimidating lobbyists. And Brooks Jackson’s Honest Graft: Inside the Business of Politics (1988) documents efforts by House Democrats like California’s Tony Coelho to siphon off campaign funds and key job postings from lobbyists in the mid-1980s. But by and large, lobbyists didn’t need encouragement from the likes of Tony Coelho to cozy up to a party that had had a lock on the majority for more than forty years. It was all Coelho could do to keep up with the offers.
In 1994, the Republicans swept into power with a manifesto for change—the Contract with America—that pledged “to restore accountability to Congress; to end its cycle of scandal and disgrace; to make all of us proud again of the way free people govern themselves.” It sounded great, but the systematic plan key Republican leaders brought with them to power soon made Johnson’s and Coelho’s offenses, and Jack Brooks’ meanness, seem almost innocent by comparison. Republican efforts harnessed a climate ripe for corruption and abuse of power. The cases of the ICI and the EIA, discussed above, are just two stories out of many about pressure brought to bear by the Republican leadership against trade associations, companies and lobbying firms to place former colleagues and allies in top and mid-level lobbying posts. These well-placed individuals, who often earned five to ten times their previous salaries as congressional or party staffers, contributed handsomely to individual Republicans’ political campaigns, campaign committees, outside campaign groups and leadership PACs—thus perpetuating the Republican lock on power. These efforts were called “the K Street Project” by their Republican progenitors, including Abramoff, DeLay, Norquist, Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) and others in their circle.
This machinery was about more than just winning elections; it was about changing laws, too. Yes, of course, lobbyists have always had a hand in slipping language into legislation—an amendment to a tax bill here, an earmark there—but in the past few years their influence increased by orders of magnitude. Lobbyists have had a much more direct role in drafting legislation, including the major energy and bankruptcy statutes recently passed and signed into law. The relationship has clearly been two-way, however. Much of the initiative has come from leaders in Congress who have pushed lobbyists for support and have shaken them down for more campaign funding.
In March 2001, Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post illustrated the matter well: “Just last week, Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum held a meeting with several lobbyists in which they agreed to come up with a list of candidates for several high-profile vacancies, including ones at AARP, the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Telecom Association.” Among the attendees at that meeting was Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who in January 2006 followed his former partner, one-time DeLay press secretary Michael Scanlon, in pleading guilty to conspiring to defraud clients out of millions of dollars. Scanlon has also admitted to conspiring to corrupt public officials. Other former DeLay staffers, including Tony Rudy and Ed Buckham, were also trapped directly in the corruption net. Abramoff further confessed to evading Federal taxes and running a wire fraud in Florida, and has agreed to pay $26.7 million in restitution, penalties and back taxes, and to serve almost six years in prison.
The many sordid press accounts of Abramoff’s dealings have made him into the poster child for congressional corruption and insider dealings. But his chicanery and amoral approach to Washington were clear a decade ago, long before it came to light that he and Scanlon had charged Indian tribes $82 million to help them get licenses to build casinos or to block other tribes from getting their licenses approved. Abramoff first drew the attention of Washington watchers when he helped operate a foundation that was secretly funded by intelligence forces in apartheid South Africa to keep track of apartheid opponents. Abramoff then parlayed his close relationships with key conservatives like DeLay, Norquist, Reed and Dennis Hastert (R-IL) into a lobbying machine that sloshed money around town to and through key lawmakers and cronies with arrogance, greed and venality. In one such case, Abramoff used $2 million from eLottery, an Internet gambling firm, to try to stop a bill that would have curtailed the firm’s business. Among other things, the money was used to pay a consulting fee to the wife of DeLay aide Tony Rudy at the same time that Rudy was secretly helping direct the eLottery lobbying effort from inside DeLay’s Capitol Hill office. Money was also spent to persuade conservative anti-gambling groups led by Louis Sheldon and Ralph Reed to attack the bill, incredibly, as pro-gambling. In Reed’s case, elaborate efforts were made to channel the money in ways that would make it seem as if it weren’t coming from a gambling group.
Lend Me Your Earmark
Abramoff & Co.’s flagrant corruption could easily make one forget that his dealings represented just one aspect of a broader culture cultivated by the majority in order to extend their hold on power (often while making a quick buck in the process). Consider the Republican majority’s perfection of the art of the earmark—multimillion-dollar contracts glommed on to defense, transportation, education and appropriations bills to benefit specific causes, communities or companies. Since 1994, earmarks have increased at least tenfold. The 2005 highway bill alone had 6,371 earmarks worth more than $23 billion. Include defense and education earmarks, and the total is well above $50 billion—all of which bypassed any cost/benefit analysis, independent review or priority test. And most members of Congress vote on bills without the slightest idea of what earmarks have been added by their colleagues, often at or near the last hour before a vote.
The ease with which lawmakers can introduce earmarks has created a particularly tempting climate for bribery. It was taking bribes in exchange for earmarks that got “Duke” Cunningham in trouble. Marcus Stern, a Copley News Service reporter, grew suspicious of a Cunningham real estate transaction and, after further investigation, discovered that the deal was a funnel for a bribe. The bribe was used to get Cunningham, a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, to steer a huge contract to a fledgling defense contractor. In November 2005, Cunningham pleaded guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes from the contractor and resigned; he is currently in Federal prison.
Yet straight-up bribery is only one, obviously illegal, way that lawmakers use earmarks to enrich their personal fortunes. To illustrate another method, let’s turn to none other than former Speaker Hastert.
The basic facts about the Hastert case were first reported in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. (Scott Lilly and I amplified on them in an October 6, 2006 article for the New Republic.) In essence, Hastert aggressively pushed to add to the recent, pork-laden highway bill an earmark funding construction of the Prairie Parkway Corridor, west of Chicago. Neither the public nor the state government supported construction of the highway; a majority of area residents favored using the money to make improvements to existing roads instead. But the highway was very convenient to one constituency: It was located a little more than a mile from land Hastert had bought for $5,200 per acre in August 2002 and used to get in on a real estate trust 18 months later. Four months after the highway bill with Hastert’s earmark was signed in December 2005, the real estate trust sold its newly valuable land to a housing developer for $36,152 per acre. Hastert cleared $3,118,000 on the deal. When all was said and done, low-end estimates placed the Speaker’s net worth at $6.2 million—virtually all of it from these earmark-enriched land transactions.
Hastert was not the only House member to make real-estate investments aided by earmarks on the highway bill. In 2005, Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) and a business partner purchased land near March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, California, and then snagged handsome Federal funding worth about $10 million for both a freeway interchange and commercial development. Within the year, they sold the land for a nice $500,000 profit, doubling their investment. Rep. Gary Miller (R-CA) secured more than $1 million in highway funding near a commercial development he co-owns in Diamond Bar, California. Of course, Republicans aren’t the only ones making out like bandits from earmarking. Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV) has also benefited personally from earmarks. Mollohan secured $179 million in government contracts for West Virginia companies that in turn gave $225,000 to his family charity, accounting for nearly half the charity’s revenue.
Breakdown of Ethics Enforcement
According to the Constitution, only Congress has the power to police its members in their official conduct. It has always been reluctant to do so without an outside prod or substantial public pressure, however. This reluctance has grown in the past decade as a result of two changes in House rules, the first to block outside groups from initiating ethics complaints against lawmakers, and the second a pact between the major parties not to launch complaints from the other side of the aisle. This pact was broken when Chris Bell, a Democrat who lost his seat in 2004 after Texas’ redistricting, raised a series of complaints against then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay—the man who had engineered his defeat. These complaints led to a triple rebuke of DeLay by the House Ethics Committee, as well as the indictments brought against him for violations of Texas campaign finance laws.
After the committee issued its admonitions, Hastert fired the committee chair, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-CO) and two of the committee’s strongest Republican members, replacing them with members who had given substantial sums to the DeLay legal defense fund. The new chair, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), knew which master he served. He flouted the committee’s long-standing rules by appointing a partisan staff leader, igniting a controversy that shut down any meaningful ethics process for more than a year, until the Mark Foley scandal forced it back into action. And even when the committee did finally bestir itself to investigate the performance of Hastert and his top aides in the Foley matter, it broke precedent with past investigations of speakers by failing to hire a respected, independent counsel to work with it. There is still no sign that the committee will move beyond a passive, reactive role in any case besides the Foley scandal.
The breakdown of the Ethics Committee comes in the midst of a much broader breakdown of regular order. One only needs to look at the embarrassing bipartisan antics displayed during the House debate this past spring about ethics and lobbying reform. The debate was only scheduled in the first place due to a barrage of criticism growing out of the Abramoff scandal. As the process began, the Rules Committee actually held a model hearing. But the bill it eventually considered in May had been diluted to meaninglessness. The committee then acted to quash virtually all reasonable amendments designed to restore some substance, including several broadly bipartisan ones. For example, Reps. Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Marty Meehan (D-MA) sponsored an amendment to create an Office of Public Integrity to oversee lobbying disclosure reports and investigate allegations of ethics violations, reporting any violations to the Ethics Committee for action. No vote was allowed. Nor was a vote allowed on an amendment to strengthen the Ethics Committee sponsored by ousted chairman Joel Hefley (R-CO) and Kenny Hulshof (R-MO), one of the panel’s stronger former members.
Meanwhile, the House Government Reform Committee, in a striking burst of bipartisanship, approved by a 32-0 vote (repeat: thirty-two to nothing) the Executive Branch Reform Act of 2006, which proposed revolving door bans, protection for whistle-blowers on administration staffers working for lobbyists, and an end to secret meetings between Executive Branch officials and lobbyists. The House Republican leadership refused to incorporate these provisions into the reform package. Further, the Rules Committee refused to allow a floor vote on an amendment including reforms offered by Reps. Tom Davis (R-VA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA), the chairman and ranking member of the Government Reform Committee, respectively. All told, every meaningful amendment was summarily rejected. The rule on the final bill was so restrictive that a sizable group of Republicans voted against it, but eight Democrats supported it, allowing it to pass.
There was one more golden opportunity to get real reform at the end of the debate: The House voted on a “motion to recommit with instructions”, a usually pro forma effort in which the minority party has a chance at an alternative. The motion would have adopted the Democrats’ ethics and lobbying reform bill, a reasonably tough package of ethics reforms put forward by the Democratic leadership. On every other occasion when a motion to recommit with instructions had been offered, it had failed on party lines; the majority Republicans treated such efforts as procedural, not substantive, and cracked the party whip. This time, however, driven by a bipartisan disgust with the failure to deal with corruption, the motion to recommit garnered an astonishing twenty Republican votes. But it still came up short by two, when four Democrats cast their ballots against it.
One of those Democrats was John Murtha of Pennsylvania. Murtha traded his vote, and possibly other votes, in return for earmarks! If this is how a top Democratic contender for majority leader, and a man frequently lauded in the press as speaking “truth to power”, behaves, what should we expect from congressmen who are literally breaking laws? Murtha showed his stripes during the post-election campaign for majority leader when he met with a group of Democratic colleagues to campaign for the post and called ethics reform “pure crap.” At least he lost the opportunity to lead the new majority, with its incoming Speaker’s pledge to create the most ethical House in history.
What is to be done? Even more significant than discrete legislative reforms are a change in attitude by those running Congress and a sustained sense of outrage by the public. The breakdown of regular order was the result of conscious decisions to disregard or bypass existing norms of conduct, so a conscious commitment to once again abide by those rules would do more to restore Congressional credibility than any reform package. The support from reformist Democrats like Marty Meehan for the ethically challenged Murtha, who has his own long and controversial relationship to scandal (the 1980 Abscam) as well as to earmarks, shows that the change in attitude will not come easily and will require constant pressure from inside and outside the institution.
Nevertheless, reforms will play an important role in cleaning the House, and they should start with the ethics process. By now it ought to be clear that having current members police themselves entails a conflict of interest: When they’re aggressive they’re called “partisan”, but when they’re passive they’re just another part of the “good old boy network.” Congress needs to find a way to build credibility for the internal investigations it undertakes (and for those it doesn’t, as well).
The best approach is through an independent Office of Public Integrity of the kind proposed by Shays and Meehan, but with enhancements. Such an office would work in conjunction with existing ethics committees, moving investigations out of the partisan morass and into a new and more independent venue—not one of special prosecutors, independent counsels or people unfamiliar with the legislative process, but one that engages former members such as Reps. Lee Hamilton (D-IN), David Skaggs (D-CO), Mickey Edwards (R-OK) and John McCollister (R-NE) to determine when the House (or Senate) ethics panel should engage in a fuller investigation of allegations against a member or staffer. Indeed, the best move that Speaker Nancy Pelosi could make would be to name retiring Rep. Joel Hefley to take charge of the outside element of the ethics process—picking a conservative Republican of impeccable integrity and institutional honesty. A proposal by Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), drawn directly from the largely successful independent ethics commissions in Florida and Kentucky, contains the best overall approach.
We must also address some of the malodorous dynamics of money and politics in the nation’s capital. Leadership Political Action Committees (PACs), fundraising schemes used by increasing numbers of members to raise money to distribute to other candidates, have become the “price of admission” to attain leadership posts. In 2004 House Republicans engaged in an embarrassing open contest to choose a chairman of the Appropriations Committee from three senior members. The criterion for the contest was the amount of money raised for “the team” via their leadership PACs, not their legislative skills. The winner, Jerry Lewis of California, is now—big surprise—deeply embroiled in controversy over his fundraising networks and their links to official actions. All such leadership PACs should be abolished.
In addition, Congress should adopt a rule now in force in many state legislatures that prohibits fundraising in Washington when Congress is in session. Combining that with a pledge that Congress will be in session for at least 26 five-day weeks each year would make the legislative process much more deliberative, build a greater sense of institutional identity among members, and create a stronger sense of commitment to integrity, compared to the near drive-by quality of activity in Congress in recent years.
We are never going to remove the main catalyst of corruption in politics—money—from the process. It would be a mistake to demand that members of Congress and staffers live ascetic or penurious lives. In fact, lawmakers (and judges, for that matter) ought to be paid at least as much as second-year associates in big law firms, and probably more, if we are to get the best people. (Right now, they are on a par with 25-year-old entering associates with court clerkships.) Still, low pay doesn’t justify one whit of the misbehavior of the recent Congress.
While money will always remain a temptation to ignoble behavior, we can put limits on it. Most money-grubbing is not undertaken for personal gain but for campaign bankrolling. If decent campaign financing reform could be agreed upon—reform that actually makes the problem smaller rather than the other way around—that would certainly help.
In the end, however, the congressional swamp will never be drained without a sharp change in behavior outside Congress. The response by voters this past November to throw at least some of the rascals out will help. But the fact is that many Democrats would be delighted to change only the flow of dollars from the GOP to them; one reformist House Democrat said of this variety of his colleagues, “They want to get rid of the K Street Project—and to replace it with Project K Street.” The only way to prevent the return to business as usual, this time with a Democratic majority flavor, is a continuing major reaction by voters against the culture of corruption. When we have a level of honest outrage that is commensurate with the manifest justification for it, we’ll start to really clean house. If the American people show instead that they just don’t care, they will get the government they so richly deserve.