|01-06-2006, 09:44 AM||#1|
Ring of Famer
Join Date: Jan 2004
It's corruption, stupid
After Jack Abramoff
It's corruption, stupid
Jan 5th 2006
From The Economist print edition
A last chance for the Republican leadership to clean house
The Republicans may dominate most of America's government, but their prospects in this year's mid-term elections look increasingly dicey. George Bush has no shortage of familiar problems—from a botched war in Iraq to the fuss over wiretapping. But none has more potential to topple the conservative movement he leads than corruption.
The case of Jack Abramoff—the super-lobbyist who pleaded guilty to sundry crimes this week—is a nightmare for the Republican establishment. To begin with, it is much easier to follow than most such scams. Here is a Beltway Bandit whose banditry was so obscene that it shocked even other Beltway Bandits. Mr Abramoff charged various Indian tribes—innocent in the ways of Washington but newly enriched by casinos—around $80m in lobbying expenses and used his ill-gotten gains to build an empire of influence. Millions flowed to favoured lawmakers in the form of Scottish golfing holidays, food and booze in swanky Washington restaurants (one of which Mr Abramoff owned), tickets for sports events and sundry other perks. All the while, Mr Abramoff celebrated his own amorality, referring to his clients as “morons”.
The Abramoff affair, the biggest corruption scandal for a generation, will surely entangle some Democrats. But most of those caught up in his affairs, however innocently, are Republicans. Tom DeLay, the former majority leader already under indictment in Texas for campaign-finance irregularities, was one of Mr Abramoff's golfing buddies. Michael Scanlon, Mr Abramoff's partner in crime, who has already pleaded guilty, used to work for Mr DeLay. There are also plenty of congressmen and senators scuttling to explain and return donations.
The danger is that, as with the cronyism exposed by Hurricane Katrina, Mr Bush and his lieutenants will claim this as a case of a few bad apples. In fact, the Abramoff affair is a case study of how the conservative movement has gone wrong.
Mr Abramoff originally arrived in Washington as one of the young conservative idealists who wanted to shrink government and drain the Washington swamp. He supported Newt Gingrich's crusade to get rid of the ruling Democrats' “culture of corruption”. Nowadays, Mr Abramoff, like so many other Gingrich revolutionaries, has been engaged in influence-peddling on an epic scale. Rather than trying to cleanse K Street, the capital's lobbying centre, the Republicans had a “K Street project” to conservatise the industry.
This has produced millions for the Republican Party. But much has been lost in the process. Gone is the enthusiasm on the American right for slimming government. Under the free-spending Mr Bush, everybody has become a “big-government conservative”. Gone, too, is any enthusiasm for term limits; indeed, most Republicans spend their time trying to gerrymander districts to keep them there for life. And there is little willingness to change. You might have imagined, for instance, that the fury about money going to build two “bridges to nowhere” in Alaska in the wake of Katrina would have scuttled the projects. But the bridges are going ahead.
For the Republican establishment, Mr Abramoff's plea is a final warning to clean house. In Mr Bush's case this means not just purging the White House of cronies (he has less sway in Congress), but also vetoing spending bills. The number of “pork-barrel projects”—ones that get round normal budget rules—increased from 2,000 in 1998 to 14,000 last year. The political cost of inaction could be high. Most Americans long ago made up their mind on the Iraq war and they actually agree with Mr Bush on the wiretapping fuss. But there is no surer way of losing elections than sleaze.
This creates an opportunity for the Democrats, though it is hard to see them taking it. Their party notably lacks a Savonarola, even a flawed one like Mr Gingrich. Their main objection to pork is that it has been diverted to Republican causes, not their own. The man who has shown most enthusiasm for tackling corruption is John McCain, a Republican senator who has railed against Mr Abramoff's ilk for years and tried (not always successfully) to change the rules to make the exchange of favours for votes more difficult. Mr McCain, who still harbours presidential ambitions for 2008, may yet prove to be the big winner from the current mess. Good luck to him.
Copyright © 2006 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.