Too much power may be basis of problems in Congress

Jim Drinkard USA Today Jan. 15, 2006 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - In 1980, a House member got caught on video stuffing cash into his pockets, one of five lawmakers snared in the Abscam FBI corruption sting operation.

Today, Washington is roiled by new bribery and fraud scandals, and the amounts involved wouldn't come close to fitting into a coat pocket. Tens of millions of dollars, luxury travel and expensive gifts have been used to influence, and in at least one case, bribe members of Congress.

The revelations are damaging faith in the federal government, triggering calls for tighter rules and prompting some to ask whether Congress once again is for sale.

"We simply have too much power," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., speaking of lawmakers' ability to target tax dollars for particular projects, contractors or campaign donors. "We Republicans have abused that power badly over the past several years."

The scandals spring from several factors, ethics authorities say. The GOP enjoys nearly unchallenged control of the federal government. The congressional ethics committees, which normally enforce the rules, have been moribund. The cost of running for office and the amount of money being spent on influencing the government have grown sharply.

"When one party has been in power for an extended period of time, a certain amount of corrosive behavior sets in," said Kenneth Gross, an attorney specializing in congressional ethics. "People start getting careless with the rules."

Everyone's favorite host

Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who built a successful practice at two Washington firms during the past decade, personifies the problems.

He had skyboxes at sports venues where he entertained lawmakers and clients, started a restaurant where free drinks and meals flowed for the powerful, and billed an astronomical $82 million to Indian tribes that were his clients.

Abramoff used to refer to the congressional appropriations committees, which write annual spending bills, as "the favor factory."

He is cooperating with federal prosecutors to build a case that may sweep in members of Congress, aides and Bush administration officials. The case, FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker said, involves "systemic corruption within the highest levels of government. . . . We fully expect additional subjects to be charged."

"Congress needs to clean house," said Jan Baran, an attorney who represents public officials and lobbying groups in ethics matters. "There are many people in Washington who are surprised they haven't done so before now."

Lobbyists and lawmakers

These problems come at the end of a decade of rapid growth in lobbying. Senate records show 32,890 lobbyists were registered last year, three times as many as a decade earlier. Many are former members of Congress or their aides. Annual spending for lobbying has grown from $800 million in 1996 to $2.2 billion last year.

Ethics rules are tighter than they were in decades past. Lobbyists must register and report their income and client lists. Lawmakers and their aides are prohibited from accepting meals, entertainment or other gifts worth more than $50.

They are barred from lobbying their former congressional contacts for a year after leaving Capitol Hill for the lobbying world. Also, they must report trips taken on the tab of private interests.

So why has the problem gotten worse? The guilty pleas of Abramoff and his lobbying partner, public relations executive Michael Scanlon, follow other ethical issues.

Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, stepped down as House majority leader last September after being charged with felony conspiracy to launder campaign money. On Jan. 6, he abandoned efforts to return.

Another Republican, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California, resigned Nov. 28 after pleading guilty to taking at least $2.4 million in bribes, including a Rolls-Royce.

Minding the store

Normally, policing the House of Representatives and Senate is up to each chamber's ethics committee, but those largely have been inactive.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, head of the Democrats' campaign committee, wants to make corruption a top issue in this year's elections.

Republican leaders, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, want changes.

The dealings between lobbyists and members of Congress have become "unfortunately, the ordinary way of doing business in this town," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who introduced a proposal last month designed to make the influence business more transparent.

"It's obvious why it's needed," he said. "One word: Abramoff."

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