21st Century Sleaze

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.

Sleaze's Settings

Even if the Abramoff Indian-financed bribery spree does not change the patterns of U.S. history, it is political larceny with dollar amounts that are huge by Washington standards, though they wouldn't buy a decent rigged securities analysis on Wall Street.

The size and audacity of the Abramoff conspiracy was made possible only by an explicit and premeditated program initiated by Tom DeLay to strong-arm companies into hiring Republican lobbyists and, logic concludes, to strong-arm Republican members into accommodating Republican lobbyists. It was called the K Street Project. As the conservative writer David Brooks writes, with the Abramoff scandal, "the real problem wasn't DeLay, it was DeLayism, the whole culture that merged K Street with the Hill, and held that raising money is the most important way to contribute to the team." That is what made Abramoff possible. That is why this is a Republican scandal, even though he tried to bribe Democrats too.

Another small point: Congress is held is low public esteem right now — low, not the lowest ever. Few members have real power any more; power in Congress entails either expertise or seniority and with each passing year, fewer and fewer members are interested in acquiring those assets. So generally, House members and, to a lesser degree, Senators, don't have power, social prestige or money. That's partly why it's so easy to bribe them with skybox seats and fancy golf trips.

The Clucks Guarding the Hen House

One aspect of the anemic anti-corruption apparatus supposedly in place in Congress that really has broken down is the ethics committees. The way Congress spends and budgets taxpayers' money that includes earmarks and pork ensures that the opportunity to steal will always be immense. The standard disincentive is getting caught. While Congressional ethics committees were never Scotland Yard, they did have recent periods of effectiveness. The Senate Ethics committee under Warren Rudman and the late Howell Heflin initiated investigations that led to the fall of Senator David Durenberger, and they led the long inquiry into the Keating Five. In recent years, these committees have atrophied.

For the political consumer, this means giving up any notion that Congress can police itself. It can't. And it can't reform itself. This is a bipartisan truth. But Republicans right now seem to be in a deeper level of fantasyland. It is bizarre that they are letting DeLay try to stay in power. It is weird that they think simply giving back Abramoff's dirty contributions will make their problems go away. These are stark symbols that there is no honor code in Congress, even though there probably is one in your kid's high school.

The Villain

Jack Abramoff is an epic villain, absolutely as sleazy as they get and scandal connoisseurs should savor this.

To his guilty plea in Washington, he wore a scary black fedora. (Where could he have gotten it? eBay, searching "fedora, black, gestapo.") He clai
By Dick Meyer