The tangled web of lobbyists and the majority party

Money scandals are nothing new to this city. The long sordid story of cash and politics may currently be focused on lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but it traces back through former Speaker Jim Wright's book deal and Abscam to the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant and further. And those are only the incidents we know about.

So as House majority leader Tom DeLay steps down officially from his leadership post - admitting no wrong but simply saying he is doing what's best for the Republican Party - it is tempting to look at the whole thing as "business as usual."

Jack Abramoff, was "just another" high- powered lobbyist/ restaurateur, who needs to learn that e-mails don't just disappear into the ether after you click "send." And his bad apple antics are "just the latest" to spoil the careers of a barrel or two of congressmen. Next?

But before you do your usual "they're all crooks" wave of your hand - don't. This case is different. It is particularly ugly, and it's just beginning.

Polls show Americans think Republican and Democratic politicians are largely equal when it comes to ethics - 71 percent said that in a recent Washington Post poll - and on the whole the American public is right. There are good and bad people from both parties. For every Bob Ney, a Republican from Ohio's 18th District, seemingly headed for jail time because of his ties to Abramoff, there is a James Traficant, a Democrat from Ohio's 17th, already there to show him around the exercise yard.

But right now the ethics avalanche is headed toward the GOP for a few reasons. One is simply par for the course, the other the party has brought on itself.

First, ethics violations tend to rain down on the party in power because they are the folks in the best position to grant favors. After all, if you are going to sit through and pay for a dinner full of bad jokes with a self-important glad-hander, make it the right self- important glad-hander. And since 2001, the Republicans have owned this town.

The second reason, however, is a bit more troublesome for the GOP.

In 1995, when the party took control of both houses of Congress, it initiated what it called the K Street Project. The party pressured lobbying firms and trade associations to hire Republicans and punished firms that didn't. The result was to make the relationship between those organizations and the GOP much deeper than they normally would have been otherwise - and, of course, to channel more money into Republican coffers in the hopes of building a "permanent majority" in Washington.

In other words, the Republican leadership invited lobbying organizations to essentially become another arm of the party. How close were the relationships? Investigators are now focusing on another firm, Alexander Strategies, which was founded by Edwin Buckham, Mr. DeLay's former chief of staff. At one point Americans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee that raised money for DeLay, was run out of the offices of Alexander. And Alexander also paid DeLay's wife more than $100,000 in consulting fees while the firm was working with ... Mr. Abramoff.

You can only wonder, what was the GOP leadership thinking? It can only be a matter of time before relationships like that blow up because of simple association - or worse.

When the biggest and most powerful lobby firms are webbed into the majority party so closely, all it takes is a misstep or two before everyone is up to their knees in problems. And the K Street Project means a whole host of GOP powerbrokers is under a cloud now, from DeLay to Ralph Reed to Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform.

The question around town now is what should be done to clean up lobbying? But the moment after it is asked there are a series of provisos about how Abramoff is a rare case and most lobbyists are honest and play by the rules. And since what Abramoff did was against the law already, what more can be done?

There's something of a point there. Lobbying isn't a dirty profession by definition, after all. It is an established part of the political process that helps groups and individuals get what they want from the system. But because of what they do, lobbyists naturally dance on a fine line, and it is guaranteed they will step over it from time to time.

That's all true, of course. It's just that they probably tend to go a lot further over the line when the political parties give them a push.

Dante Chinni writes a twice-monthly political column for the Monitor.

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