Yes, Reform Lobbying, but Don't Forget Leadership PACs

The Congressional impact of the Jack Abramoff scandal continues to grow. I first want to hold to account those Members who defended, for months and years, the indefensible, in embarrassing and often shrill terms. Whether for ambition or gratitude, these Members need to be aware that what was said in the past is not forgotten now.

I am mostly thinking of the longtime and ardent defenders of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Just to give a flavor for what I mean, here are two verbatim quotes from a November 2004 press conference held by Republican House Members, including DeLay, shortly after the House ethics committee issued three harsh rebukes of his behavior.

  • Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas): “I am so happy to introduce one of the greatest leaders that this nation has ever seen, the most--one of the most honorable Americans that I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing and serving with, a good man, a compassionate man, a person who truly cares about his colleagues, his family, and the future of this country. I give you our wonderful Majority Leader, Tom DeLay.”
  • Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.): “I've been wanting to say something for a long time. I have known well Tom DeLay for 14 years and have worked closely together with him during that time. He is a person of the highest integrity and a man of principle. He has been subjected to a relentless, deliberate campaign by the other party to destroy him, under the belief that by doing so, they would destroy the Republican movement in the United States and thwart our efforts in Congress.”

Then there’s the following from Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), in a Roll Call profile of him as chief defender of DeLay, commenting after the ethics committee unanimously issued its rebukes: “There is an organized pattern of partisan witch-hunt here, and that is exactly what all of this is about.”

Here is the reality. For years, to any sentient human being who’s spent time on Capitol Hill, DeLay clearly was someone who viewed the lines of propriety as challenges--things to edge right up to, dance around, put a toe over to see what happened and maybe even cross.

The long-standing ties between DeLay and former GOP lobbyist Abramoff are dizzyingly extensive, encompassing top staffers such as Michael Scanlon, Ed Buckham and Tony Rudy. Some, like Rudy, appear to have served as inside moles for Abramoff in the Majority Leader’s office before going outside to get rich from his efforts. Some of the links run through Buckham’s Alexander Strategy Group. Not all involve American Indian gambling money; some of the cash was Internet-gambling related. Some came from Russian oligarchs and government companies. Much was from sweat shops in the Northern Marianas Islands. DeLay for years took lavish trips with or sponsored by Abramoff and aggressively promoted the causes of Abramoff’s clients. He called Abramoff one of his dearest and closest friends. The Alexander Strategy Group paid tidy sums to DeLay’s wife, Christine.

Some of these things have been reported in recent months by the Washington Post, The Associated Press, Bloomberg and other news organizations. But the general pattern has been clear for years. DeLay may be acquitted in Texas; he may escape criminal charges in the widening Abramoff scandal. But he has been ethically challenged for a long time.

I don’t condemn people for standing by their friends. I think it’s admirable that Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) is open about his long-standing friendship with Abramoff, unlike Members who were wined and dined by the lobbyist but now say they never met him or barely remember him. But the comments and actions by Bonilla, Doolittle, Cantor, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and many others to protect and defend DeLay--and let’s not forget the comments made by outside figures such as President Bush, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman and Family Research Council principal Tony Perkins--go beyond that.

Now a few words on what should be done to genuinely reform Congress. I want to go beyond the lobbying and procedural reforms I have addressed up to now and talk about two key areas: leadership political action committees and campaign contributions from lobbyists.

I was deeply unsettled by what happened when the House Appropriations Committee chairmanship was up for grabs at the beginning of this Congress. There were three contenders for the throne, all longtime, solid legislators: Reps. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.). But it was clear that the choice was going to be made not solely, or even primarily, on the basis of legislative acumen or leadership skills, nor even by ideology. Rather, the ante to get into the race itself was to raise a ton of money for “the team.”

To watch them scramble to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, turning to everyone they knew and everyone with any business before the committee, was wrenching. I have no reason to believe any of the three did anything illegal or unethical, but they were clearly made uncomfortable by the indignity of it all.

Watch any leadership race, for a party slot or for a committee or subcommittee gavel, and it has become clear that setting up and exploiting a leadership PAC is now a necessity in both parties. It intensifies the phenomenon that lobbyists have relayed to me privately for years--that they are increasingly being shaken down by Members and aides for money, including, of course, their personal cash. Lobbyists will talk off the record about ever-more blatant threats, such as, “Give the money and show up at the fundraiser and you and your clients will benefit, or don’t give, and you and your clients’ interests will suffer.”

A part of the K Street Project was to create a loop in which former lawmakers and staffers would be placed in lucrative lobbying posts that paid two to 10 times what they earned on Capitol Hill, with the understanding that they would reciprocate by maxing out on contributions to the party and its candidates. The shakedown did not begin with Republicans and has not been confined to them, but of course it is more a majority-party phenomenon. It is wrong. We need to consider banning or sharply restricting leadership PACs. And I believe it is time for an ethics rule that makes it a violation of House and Senate ethics for a Member to solicit or accept a contribution from a lobbyist with business before the body.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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