Republicans are looking for “their” John McCain. The popular Arizona maverick is already a Republican, of course. But the GOP needs a McCain in the “Keating Five” sense. Back in 1990, Senate Democrats roped McCain into the scandal over savings and loan kingpin Charles Keating on tenuous grounds, just so not all the senators involved would be Democrats.
The GOP now craves such bipartisan cover in the Jack Abramoff scandal. Republicans trumpet every Democratic connection to Abramoff in the hope that something resonates. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), took more than $60,000 from Abramoff clients! North Dakota Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan used Abramoff’s skybox! It is true that any Washington influence peddler is going to spread cash and favors as widely as possible, and 210 members of Congress have received Abramoff-connected dollars. But this is, in its essence, a Republican scandal, and any attempt to portray it otherwise is a misdirection.
Abramoff is a Republican who worked closely with two of the country’s most prominent conservative activists, Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed. Top aides to the most important Republican in Congress, Tom DeLay (R., Tex.) were party to his sleazy schemes. The only people referred to directly in Abramoff’s recent plea agreement are a Republican congressmen and two former Republican congressional aides. The GOP members can make a case that the scandal reflects more the way Washington works than the unique perfidy of their party, but even this is self-defeating, since Republicans run Washington.
Republicans must take the scandal seriously and work to clean up in its wake. The first step was the permanent ouster of Tom DeLay as House Republican majority leader, a recognition that he is unfit to lead as long as he is underneath the Abramoff cloud. The behavior of the right in this matter contrasts sharply with the left’s lickspittle loyalty to Bill Clinton, whose maintenance in power many liberals put above any of their principles. Next, Republicans will have to show they can again embrace the spirit of reform that swept them to power in 1994.
To this end, GOP lawmakers are rushing to introduce lobbying reform. Anything that increases transparency is welcome. But lobbying reform’s animating pretense is that lawmakers are all upstanding–until they come under the corruptive spell of lobbyists. In every transaction, however, there has to be a willing buyer and seller.
There are two deeply rooted sources of corruption in Washington. One is that many members of Congress believe that they would be making much more than their $160,000-a-year salaries if they were in some other line of work. This sense is compounded when they watch their former 30-year-old aides go to work on K Street for $300,000 a year. This is how someone like Tom DeLay–otherwise a conviction politician–justifies playing the best golf courses in the world on someone else’s dime and getting special interests to funnel easy money to his wife.
It will be a sign that Congress has learned something if it bans all privately funded travel. If a trip is truly educational and necessary, the public should fund it; if, on the other hand, a member of Congress wants to enjoy fine resorts, he should quit, practice law (or whatever), and earn the income to support his desired lifestyle.
The other problem is that Washington makes obscure decisions that enrich small groups of people. Most everyone in Washington supports making these decisions because it increases his or her power. But if Congress really wants to lessen the malign influence of lobbyists, it should reform the inherently corruptible process whereby the Interior Department recognizes new Native American tribes so they can mint money by opening casinos, and end the practice of “earmarking” federal dollars for local and special-interest projects. It’s no accident that Abramoff saw the business potential in both of these processes.
Of course, making these sort of changes would be painful. That’s why it is tempting for Republicans to look for a John McCain instead.