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Friday, January 20, 2006

Contempt of Congress


Yesterday's NYTimes had an op-ed from Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann entitled "If You Give a Congressman a Cookie." I've been struggling to put my thoughts on this article into words, because the pervasive corruption and contempt of the GOP leadership for the rules of Congress and the wider ethical norms of this country is truly breathtaking in its moral decay and scope.

If you didn't get a chance to read the op-ed, you should. It details a number of issues that the authors, both long-time policy and legislative analysts at AEI (Ornstein) and The Brookings Institution (Mann), see in this Congress and in the political culture of today's Washington, through the lens of how much more corrupt and grasping this particular incarnation of Congress has been under the Republican leadership -- how much further the GOP has taken the notion of "we can do whatever the hell we want, because we are the law."

That the authors chose a title cribbed from the children's book "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie" is apt -- I read this book often to my daughter at bedtime, and the tale of the greedy little mouse who continually wants more and more and more, never satisfied with gaining his latest objective, is a perfect analogy for the KStreet project and its adherents.

We hear over and over from corporate media stories, political consultants and talking heads on teevee that the American public thinks that all politicians are corrupt, that this issue hurts Democrats as much as Republicans, yadda, yadda, yadda. Well, I say that is bunk. Perhaps the public doesn't quite understand the lengths to which the GOP has gone to bilk cash or trips or whatever out of whatever source was willing to dispense it, and what favors were given in return for that largesse. And I say that the media and the Democratic party establishment have been horrid at educating the public on this issue.

But I would bet good money that what will make the public sit up and take notice is just how this "I'll scratch your bank account, if you'll scratch mine." behavior has impacted their own lives. And if you think that Jack Abramoff and all his KStreet pals and all those Republican budget earmarks can't take their toll, think again.

Today's NYTimes has another doozy of an op-ed, this time from Paul Krugman, that is blocked behind the TimesSelect wall -- so no link, but I am going to excerpt a bit here because it goes hand in hand with the Ornstein and Mann piece from yesterday.
Thomas Scully was a hospital industry lobbyist before President Bush appointed him to run Medicare. In that job, Mr. Scully famously threatened to fire his chief actuary if he told Congress the truth about cost projections for the Medicare drug program.

Mr. Scully had good reasons not to let anything stand in the way of the drug bill. He had received a special ethics waiver from his superiors allowing him to negotiate for future jobs with lobbying and investment firms - firms that had a strong financial stake in the form of the bill - while still in public office. He left public service, if that's what it was, almost as soon as the bill was passed, and is once again a lobbyist, now for drug companies.

Meanwhile, Representative Billy Tauzin, the bill's point man on Capitol Hill, quickly left Congress once the bill was passed to become president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the powerful drug industry lobby.

Surely both men's decisions while in office were influenced by the desire to please their potential future employers. And that undue influence explains why the drug legislation is such a mess.

The most important problem with the drug bill is that it doesn't offer direct coverage from Medicare. Instead, people must sign up with private plans offered by insurance companies.

This has three bad effects. First, the elderly face wildly confusing choices. Second, costs are high, because the bill creates an extra, unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. Finally, the fragmentation into private plans prevents Medicare from using bulk purchasing to reduce drug prices.
This tale of Mr. Scully and Mr. Tauzin is a small illustration of a much, much larger problem. I've been hitting this Medicare problem hard because it is one that I see play itself out every day here in West Virginia, where I've seen elderly folks at the drugstore struggle to piece together change from their coin purse to finish paying for drugs that they can ill afford, where heating prices have skyrocketed this winter at a time when the Administration has cut subsidies for people on the margins, and where my family has tried to help out folks at our local Mission and other shelter options because there are elderly people who have to face a choice every day between their prescriptions and eating, and that is just, plain wrong in a nation of such wealth and prosperity for so many at the highest end of income.

I don't say this to make myself out to be some saint, because I'm not -- there is a lot more than I ought to be doing, frankly. But because it is illustrative of what I've heard from hundreds of readers, friends and family who work with the elderly, the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, the disabled, the abused and neglected. You know, the people who can't afford to hire Jack Abramoff to buy their way into a piece of the legislative pie bonanza.

We have a Congress and an Executive Branch, run by a Republican majority gone amok, drunk on power and dispensing legislative largesse on their contributors at every turn. A legislature which hands out pork and plums to clients of their KStreet pals, in order to secure employment for chosen staffers...in order to secure more access to cash for campaigns and for travel boondoggles. (Notice how the interests of the American public don't really factor in there.) We have a legislative ethics process that has essentially stalled or disappeared altogether (via Ornstein and Mann):
Indeed, Mr. Hastert showed open contempt for the House ethics process last year when he fired the Republican chairman of the ethics committee and ousted two Republican members after they did their duty and reprimanded Tom DeLay for three violations of standards. Mr. Hastert then appointed two members to the committee who had given large sums to the DeLay legal defense fund - when the main matter pending before the committee involved Representative DeLay.

The same attitude produced the K Street Project, in which the new Republican majority, led by Mr. DeLay, used its governmental power to demand that trade associations and lobbying groups fire Democratic lobbyists and hire designated Republicans, who could then be expected to show their gratitude by contributing generously to party candidates and committees. Jack Abramoff was one of the progenitors of that initiative.
The Republican party controls both the legislative and executive branches of government. They are responsible for how business is currently being conducted. They should be held accountable for the mess that government has become.

How have Republicans been able to get away with this for the last five years and more? Because the Democrats must have a coherent opposition response to this mess and, thus far, that hasn't emerged. When you add in a complicit media, you have no check or balance but the judicial branch -- and legal balancing takes a long time to weight itself out. As Krugman said today:
The more important effect of the K Street project is that it allows the party machine to offer lavish personal rewards to the faithful. For a congressman, toeing the line on legislation brought free meals in Jack Abramoff's restaurant, invitations to his sky box, golf trips to Scotland, cushy jobs for family members and a lavish salary after leaving office. The same kinds of rewards are there for loyal members of the administration, especially given the Bush administration's practice of appointing lobbyists to key positions.

I don't want to overstate Mr. Abramoff's role: although he was an important player in this system, he wasn't the only one. In particular, he doesn't seem to have been involved in the Medicare drug deal. It's interesting, though, that Scott McClellan has announced that the White House, contrary to earlier promises, won't provide any specific information about contacts between Mr. Abramoff and staff members.

So I have a question for my colleagues in the news media: Why isn't the decision by the White House to stonewall on the largest corruption scandal since Warren Harding considered major news?
Why is it that this has not been bigger news? Well, take a long look at all the reporting Jane has been doing on just the lack of objective fact reporting from the WaPo, and you begin to see a big part of the problem. How we begin to fix this is a very big question indeed. And one to which I've been devoting a lot of thought over the last few weeks. The 2006 elections are a huge part of the puzzle -- and I've been trying to come up with better strategies and ideas to pass along because we simply cannot afford to half-ass our way through under these circumstances. I would really appreciate thoughts on this -- we have some great commenters on message and key issues, and this is the time for all of us to kick into high gear.

I've been working with my local Democratic party apparatus, trying to help with local organization and message issues. Think about the impact we could all have if everyone did the same. That's a whole lot of energy being brought to bear at once and, frankly, a lot of local Dem groups could use a boost in energy.

I look forward to everyone's thoughts on this. And I'm hoping we can continue this conversation over a series of issue pieces I'm working up for the next few weeks. Don't know about you all, but I'm sick of my country being gamed by a bunch of greedy thugs -- it's time that our representatives actually worked for our interests for a change instead of lining their own pockets and trying to get re-elected.

I'm sick of having contempt of Congress. And I'm betting there are a whole lot of readers out there who feel the same way.

UPDATE: Speaking of Congress, Rep. Conyers is spearheading some hearings today on the NSA issue that are currently being shown on C-Span. Current testimony being given by James Bamford and Bruce Fein, among others. Should make for some interesting discussion -- too bad Conyers had to put this together with other Dems because Republicans in Congress haven't yet picked up the ball to do the oversight that is their job. You know, what we pay them to do.

UPDATE #2: Changed to reflect that Ornstein works for the American Enterprise Institute and Mann works for Brookings. Had forgotten to add in AEI in the initial posting. My apologies.

UPDATE #3: C-Span now covering a panel on corruption and politics, including Thomas Mann.

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