AUSTIN, Texas -- Cynics are fond of meditating on the evil done in the name of reform. I'm a great believer in perpetual reform myself, on the theory that political systems, like houses, are always in want of some fixing. However, I have seen some pluperfect doozies passed off as reform in recent years, starting with "Social Security reform."
Conservatives used to oppose reform on principle, correctly regarding it as a vile plot by goo-goo good government forces to snatch away their perks. This once led to a colorful scene in the Texas legislature in which the letters R*E*F*O*R*M appeared on the rear ends of six female members of a baton drill team, who turned and perched their derrieres pertly on the brass rail of the House gallery.
Reform follows scandal as night the day, except in these sorry times when it appears we may not get a nickel's worth of reform out of the entire Jack Abramoff saga. Sickening. A real waste of a splendid scandal. When else do politicians ever get around to fixing huge ethical holes in the roof except when they're caught red- handed? Do not let this mess go to waste! Call now, and demand reform!
Sheesh. Tom DeLay gets indicted, and all the Republicans can think of is a $20 gift ban. Forget the people talking about "lobby reform." The lobby does not need to be reformed, the Congress needs to be reformed. This is about congressional corruption, and it is not limited to the surface stuff like taking free meals, hotels and trips. This is about corruption that bites deep into the process of making laws in the public interest. The root of the rot is money (surprise!), and the only way to get control of the money is through public campaign financing.
As long as the special interests pay to elect the pols, we will have government of the special interests, by the special interests and for the special interests. Pols will always dance with them what brung them. We have to fix the system so that when they are elected, they got no one to dance with but us, the people -- we don't want them owing anyone but the public. So the most useful reform bill is being offered by Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., and Rep. Barney Frank, D- Mass. -- public campaign financing. We, the citizens, put up the money to elect the pols. This bill won't cost us money, the savings will be staggering.
We're also looking for a way to control the system of earmarks, which has gotten completely out of hand. "The rush to revise ethics laws in the wake of the Jack Abramoff political corruption scandal has turned into more of a saunter," reports The Washington Post. The Republicans keep dicking around with the gift ban idea (opposed by those stalwarts who claim "you couldn't accept a t-shirt from your local high school"). But the best anti-reformer is Rep. John Boehner, R- Ohio, the new House majority leader, elected as a "reformer" (puh- leeze), a man after Tom DeLay's heart. Boehner argues that gift and travel bans would amount to members of Congress being "treated like children." (Actually, children are seldom offered golfing vacations.)
The lobbyists, of course, have pulled together to work against efforts to control them. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. Tom Susman, chair of the ethics committee of the American League of Lobbyists (it is a concept), is reported in Legal Times as saying a gift ban would lead to "unnecessarily awkward dividing lines between lobbyists and members." God forbid.
The House Democratic leadership has proposed reinforcing a gift and travel ban with an attempt to control earmarks by prohibiting "dead of night" provisions -- inserting language into a law without a chance for review. Members would be given 24 hours to read bills (which they don't, but their staffs can).
The cosmetic fixes -- gift ban, travel ban, disclosure and slowing the revolving door between staff, Congress and the lobby -- cannot stop the effects of the K Street Project. That's the cozy arrangement whereby lobbyists are Republican activists and Republican activists are lobbyists, and they underwrite campaigns in return for special privileges under the law -- tax exemptions, regulatory relief, tariff dispositions, etc.
One of the most dangerous things about this whole corrupt system is that people who are given special privileges inevitably come to regard them not as special but as natural and right, and will fight furiously if you try to take them away.
It is this endless series of earmarks -- special little set-asides for one special interest, one home district after another -- that is behind the hemorrhaging in the federal budget. Those who remember when conservatives called for fiscal restraint may get sour amusement from the situation. But what is truly not funny is the pathetic spectacle of the United States of America, a nation with the greatest political legacy the world has ever known, letting itself be gnawed to death by the greed in a corrupt system that can be so easily fixed.