For the first time since Watergate, 2006 will be the year of the courts in American politics, with three important legal battles dominating the news in an election year. In some ways, the Republican establishment in Washington, D.C., will be on trial.
The cases are interconnected, although they have different defendants.
Charges against Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's right-hand man, will be heavily publicized but are the least important of the three cases. Libby is charged with lying to a grand jury investigating the leaking of a CIA agent's name.
Libby's trial will get big headlines because it's inside-the-Beltway stuff involving major political and media players, who love to gossip about whose phone calls Libby and Karl Rove return. If Rove is indicted, however, that touches the president — George W. Bush and Rove are inseparable — and there's blood in the water.
More important are the linked cases of Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, the powerful House majority leader, and Jack Abramoff, a well-connected lobbyist and DeLay ally. The influence of DeLay, nicknamed The Hammer for his gentle ways, intertwines with the career of Abramoff and his associates.
DeLay, charged with two counts of money-laundering in Texas, and Abramoff, charged with wire fraud and conspiracy in Florida, epitomize the abuse of power that has overtaken the House of Representatives in particular since the GOP took over the lower chamber in 1995. When Bush won the White House in 2000, the Texas clique gained almost total control over the nation's governance, vaulting DeLay and his friends to unprecedented power.
Shortly after the Republican surge in 1994 put Rep. Newt Gingrich in the speaker's chair, DeLay called together most of the top lobbying firms in Washington and bluntly told them to replace Democrats on their staff with Republicans — names would be supplied. At the same time, DeLay gained control of millions of dollars provided by these lobbyists to finance House and other campaigns.
Abramoff is very close to DeLay and among those he hired was a young man who had been DeLay's press aide, Michael Scanlon. Scanlon recently pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge, and is aiding prosecutors as they go after DeLay, Abramoff and several members of Congress for influence-peddling. Prosecutors are trying to get Abramoff to cooperate as well, before deciding exactly which of several possible charges to levy relating to his lobbying practices.
If Abramoff sings, he and Scanlon will bring down some big guys. Already, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio has been implicated and other names are beginning to surface.
Trials of Abramoff and others would expose the seamy underside of Washington politics — which is not limited to Republicans, but has been particularly aggressive under the current GOP leadership. Even Gingrich, no shrinking violet, looks like Mother Teresa compared to DeLay. The extent of his power is such that many colleagues won't even talk on the record about replacing him as majority leader — and these are so-called sovereign members of Congress.
DeLay, Abramoff, Scanlon and others got too greedy — they wanted it all. Power, riches, subsidized foreign junkets, and even respect. In the end they may lose it all.
DeLay's "K Street Project," named for the Washington street where many lobbying firms have offices, built a pipeline from congressional staffs to lucrative lobbying jobs. DeLay's wife was among those hired by Abramoff.
Cozy relations between legislators and lobbyists are deeply rooted in Washington culture and big lobby firms often hire members of Congress who retire or are defeated. Former members have personal contacts and access that ordinary lobbyists don't have. Their big salaries are often in gratitude for favors delivered when they were in office. Public business is decided on golf courses and yachts, bankrolled by lobbyists and their special-interests employers and campaign contributors.
Democrats and Republicans played the game, and lobbying firms covered their bases with bipartisan hiring. A form of comity was recognized by both parties.
Gingrich's 1994 Republican "revolution" produced a different order of business in the House. Democrats were kept off some critical conference committees where key votes are taken, or were so marginalized as to be powerless.
The K Street Project punished lobbyists who retained high-profile Democratic staff. The domination of K Street by conservative Republicans has brought their clients big-time financial benefits. Now a different breed of chickens is coming home to roost, in the form of the DeLay and Abramoff scandals.
Because they were so successful at working the system, Republicans will also occupy most of the spotlight in the courtroom dramas of 2006.
Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2005 Seattle Times