It’s Transparent, All Right: Our Lawmakers Are Crooked

“If it had teeth, it would bite you,” my mother used to tell me when I couldn’t find something that was staring me in the face. But what’s obvious to some is invisible to others.

American diplomats, consultants, politicians, advisors, journalists, propagandists and moralists, official and self-nominated, move around the planet pointing out corruption wherever they look. When they find it, which is all the time, they explain to the backward inhabitants of backward lands that corruption is holding down economic development. For corruption, they prescribe “transparency.”

They do like that word, “transparency.” Their theory is that if people can see what’s going on, they will act accordingly-or at least they will try to, if they have power. But nothing will happen without transparency, without the corruption being made visible.

The doctrine of transparency may or may not be applicable to private businesses, but it’s meaningless when it comes to government. People the world over know what’s going on with their crooked governments, who is taking what from whom in return for which. Those transactions take place in front of them, but the definitions of bribery are variable.

Touring American experts can spot a crooked politician in Egypt faster than you can say the word baksheesh, but two-thirds of the Senate and three-quarters of the House of Representatives can stand on the Capitol steps raking in tips, gifts, emoluments, donations, honoraria, favors and tangible acknowledgments of every variety from corruptionists, foreign and domestic, and words and expressions such as “on the take,” “bribe,” “dirty deal,” “crooked transaction,” “slimy politician” or “corruption” are left unspoken-at least in public. Something that’s called a bribe in Baghdad is, in America, renamed “making private resources available to help public officials better inform themselves about sophisticated 21st-century issues,” or some such verbose garbage.

Is my indignation exaggerated? Money in Politics, an organization with a spiteful need to make transparency transparent by studying public records, has found that members of Congress received just under $18 million in expense-free trips from private organizations during the last five years.

Now comes Tom DeLay, the Republican Majority Leader in the House, and his troubles. Was his golfing vacation in Scotland paid for by a nonprofit foundation-and, if yes, how kosher is the nonprofit foundation? The Democrats, sensing a chance to knock off their most savage tormentor, are screaming to get Mr. DeLay hauled off to what is called-with no humor intended-the House Ethics Committee.

Mr. DeLay, however, is a ballsy-wallsy varmint, a born-again Christian who wears his religion like a sandwich board and says a vote for him is a vote for Jesus. Far from sneaking off into disgraced retirement, as three recent Speakers of the House had to do (Carl Albert, Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich), he can be seen at every $10,000-a-plate dinner with his portable, upholstered cross, which he mounts during the coffee and liqueurs to announce his martyrdom and shout his defiance of deism and honest government.

I would hate to see Mr. DeLay go. I enjoy the newspaper stories about him, fellow professional Christian Ralph Reed and Jack Abramoff, the shadowy (if you’ll pardon the cliché) Washington fixer. These three are American traditionalists, inasmuch as they’re involved up to their whiskers in the old-time white man’ s business of fleecing the Indians. The Delay-Abramoff-Reed form of fleeceage has to do with which tribes get casinos and which don’t. As the newspaper clips reveal, much wampum goes from hand to hand on these deals.

If Mr. DeLay and the Republicans fight back and offer up the names of Democrats who have been the beneficiary of the same kind of freebie-vacation bribery, they’ll have performed a public service. By exposing the crooks on the other side, they may get the members of both parties to form a circular firing squad. Thus the teeth may yet bite.

Thanks to the revelations about Mr. DeLay, the newspapers have gotten interested in the subject of freebies. The Washington Post recently looked into who in Congress might be flitting about the country in jet airplanes owned by corporations and found out that, in the last few years, Republicans and Democratic members of Congress have taken at least 360 flights in said conveyances. The costs of some of these flights were partially paid for by the politicians, but not out of their own funds. They were paid from campaign contributions, which, in turn, originate with those who own or control the airplanes.

Can a Senator be bribed with a plane trip that costs $5,000 or $6,000? Yes. It is stunning how cheap some of these people go for. Some require big money, but many are yours for a pittance, or a pittance and a half. But then it isn’t just one trip, and it’s not just the airfare: It’s a way of life.

The all-expenses-paid vacations are handled through intermediaries, usually nonprofit think tanks whose function is laundering the bribes. Some of these outfits are straight, but a goodly number are crooked from the start. The last 20 years have seen an explosion of shady foundations, centers and institutes that are little more than propaganda mills and nonprofit drops for bribes. To front the operation and flimflam the gulls, the people who run these places bedeck their employees with titles such as “visiting fellow,” “senior research fellow,” “distinguished fellow.” (These titles were taken from the Heritage Foundation’s Web site.) The Washington Post ran a story about the financial and political relationship between Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad; Heritage’s president, Edwin J. Feulner, and his wife, as well as a for-profit outfit of theirs called Belle Haven Consultants; and something by the name of Alexander Strategy Group, which is run by a certain Edwin A. Buckham, who is a former chief of staff to Mr. DeLay. Part of the deal was one of those expense-free vacations for a parcel of Congresspersons.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took $2,170 from an entity calling itself the Faith and Politics Institute to pay for a “civil-rights pilgrimage.” On the Internet, the institute describes itself as providing “occasions for moral reflection and spiritual community to political leaders, drawing universal wisdom from a range of religious traditions.” I guess that nobly vacuous language makes it O.K. to put money in politicians’ hands. The fact is that they have their point of view, and they are paying elected officials to go along with it. Ms. Pelosi is a rich woman from a safe district, as most other members of Congress are rich by the standards of ordinary working people-but they take the money anyway.

Making the rules on gifts tighter may only put more lawyers to work. Reforming the rules means making them complicated, and complicated rules are written to be busted. There is no reason for these men and women to be accepting gifts in any form from people seeking to sneak favored treatment for themselves or their viewpoints into the laws. If members of Congress or their staffs need to travel to do official business, let the government pay. Trips to conventions, meetings, seminars, etc.-whether they’re disguised vacations or something more serious-should not be paid for by anybody but the travelers themselves.

Making the acceptance of bribes in whatever form a felony punishable by jail time will not open up a new era, but it may begin to end the present one, in which a bribed national legislature can do nothing except take care of the needs of those who are slipping its members money. We have a Congress made impotent by graft.

Democratic partisans believe that when they come back into control, they’ll bring no-bribe government with them. But if they’re already compromised by the present system of transparent bribery as a minority party, the only reasonable expectation, if they become the majority, is that they will up their price. That’s what Republicans did when they took over Congress 11 years ago; that broom-and-bucket brigade never turned up. So those of us who have the time and energy for current affairs read about what’s going on and cluck over the crooks in Russia, Egypt, China and Nigeria.

If it had teeth, it would bite us. It does have teeth, and it is biting us.