21st Century Sleaze

Jack Abramoff, foreground, leaves Federal Court in Washington Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2006. The once-powerful lobbyist pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud, agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors investigating influence peddling that has threatened powerful members of the U.S. Congress. At right is his attorney Abbe Lowell.
This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
As a political consumer, you are being told that there are three reasons to care about the many scandals of Jack Abramoff. First, many members of Congress could get in trouble, some could be indicted, Tom DeLay may never lead again and the Republicans may lose seats in the mid-term elections. Second, the scandals show once and for all just how reptilian Washington is. Third, these scandals could lead to meaningful reforms that could profoundly alter politics.

I don't think these are great reasons to care.

Yes, it may come to pass that a slew of politicians could get in trouble and there's even a chance you will have actually heard of a few of them; when that happens, I urge you to pay attention. Similarly, this could influence elections some day. I urge you to vote.

Next, it is almost always a historical mistake to think that government institutions or their governors are more corrupt, ignorant, devious, incompetent, malicious or venal in the present than they ever have been before. Plenty of cads from the history books can give Abramoff and slugs who took his bribes a run for their dirty money. The reptilian quotient in American politics doesn't vary hugely over time.

Finally, as you may suspect, I am confident this scandal will not lead to meaningful reform. It may well lead to cosmetic and trivial legislation. Meaningful reform would mean reinventing the appropriations process, financing campaigns publicly, extending House terms from two years to four years and perhaps FCC regulation of the media. I don't see any of that happening.

All that being said, there is fun to be had and enlightenment to be gained from the Abramoff story. I suggest focusing on these few themes and Big Ideas.

Corruption's Consequences

Washington scandals can change history. They have in modern times. But it's hard to predict what has legs and what doesn't.

Watergate, of course, brought down a Republican president and installed a Democrat, but only for one term. It also brought a new generation of Democrats into Congress and they continued Democratic control of the House for another generation. When the Democrats finally lost the House in 1994, scandal played a big role. But it was a long series of scandals, years of it, which did the damage: Jim Wright, Tony Coelho, Dan Rostenkowski, and the House Post Office. The Republican's spiritual leader of those years, Newt Gingrich, was an insistent, relentless scandalmonger. (Ironically, a scandal forced Gingrich from office. Ironically, Gingrich is leading the current call for Republicans to dump DeLay and clean house.)

Other scandals, even big ones, have not had big effects on elections or even careers. Senator Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick provide one rather striking example. Iran-Contra provides another; it was a huge, year-of-headlines story and yet the Republicans held the White House and soon captured Congress.

Are Congressional Republicans now in a cycle of corruption, as the Democrats hope and pray? So far we have Tom DeLay's troubles, Duke Cunningham's fall, the Abramoff case and stories about Bill Frist, which frankly strikes me as without merit thus far. I'm not in the prediction business, but nothing leads me to think this series of Washington stories matters much to voters in a time of war, of a new kind of domestic security fear, of massive technological change and of economic insecurity.

What's helpful for political consumers, I think, is to think about the daily stories about the Abramoffs and DeLays of the world in this context of election cycles and what issues matter more.