If we are to believe the latest press releases from Capitol Hill, the leaders of Congress aren’t a bloated, self-serving clique fattened on largesse from lobbyists, but a lean, idealistic and indefatigable band of reformers.
The Speaker of the House and his ambitious colleagues can now think of nothing as important as proposals to restrict the free dinners, golf junkets, stadium boxes and myriad other costly gifts lavished on them by their backers on K Street. Responsible for deficits that would make the most spendthrift liberal blush, these “fiscal conservatives” promise to abolish pork-barrel projects, secret earmarks and all the varied means they currently use to siphon billions from the federal treasury into the pockets of their contributors.
Glancing nervously behind them as their old cronies line up in the dock, from Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay to Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney, and looking nervously ahead to Election Day, the rentable statesmen compete to prove their devotion to the highest ethical standards. Their proclamations of purity display a truly touching faith in the perpetual gullibility of the American voter.
In fact, when you consider what they expect us to believe, it’s hard not to be insulted.
Speaker Dennis Hastert claims that he has been pondering how to rein in crooked legislators and lobbyists, while consulting with his troubled colleagues. In a statement hastily issued within hours after Mr. DeLay resigned as House Majority Leader, Mr. Hastert declared: “Over the past several months, I have spoken with many members about the need for such reforms. I have been encouraged by the breadth and boldness of their ideas. Now is the time for action.”
Actually, what the Speaker has done over the past several months (and years) is pretty much nothing, except for his assiduous efforts to cover up for Mr. DeLay—who ushered him into the top leadership post in 1999 and was universally regarded as the brains and muscle behind Mr. Hastert.
Oblivious to appearances as well as facts, the House Speaker steadfastly defended Mr. DeLay as the evidence of corruption accumulated. He sought to change the rules so that Mr. DeLay could remain as majority leader, even after the inevitable felony indictment. He punished the Republican chairman of the House Ethics Committee for daring to criticize Mr. DeLay’s blatant misconduct by removing the unfortunate fellow from his post and replacing him with a pliant loyalist.
In short, he served as Mr. DeLay’s reliable enabler—and took his own share of proceeds from Mr. Abramoff as well. Immediately after a fund-raiser for the Speaker at the lobbyist’s Washington restaurant, Mr. Hastert signed a letter to the Secretary of the Interior on behalf of an Abramoff Indian gaming client.
Following the example of the Speaker, the men seeking to succeed Mr. DeLay as House Majority Leader all insist that they, too, are born-again reformers. The leading candidate is Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican who rose to leadership as majority whip under the DeLay regime. He’s a bit gamy to be minted as their fresh new boss, as the Republicans poised to choose him surely understand.
What they know, although you may not, is that Mr. Blunt is quite literally wedded to influence peddling: His current wife is a lobbyist. (She used to be his girlfriend, before he demonstrated his unbending morality by leaving his first wife of 31 years to marry her.) One of his sons is a lobbyist, too.
Wife and son both work for Altria, the tobacco company once known as Philip Morris, which has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Mr. Blunt’s political accounts. He returned the favor a few years ago, while in the throes of illicit romance, by sneaking an amendment benefiting the tobacco industry into the bill that created the Department of Homeland Security. So blatant was this maneuver that even Mr. DeLay and Mr. Hastert objected.
Electing Mr. Blunt won’t put much distance between the House Republicans and the scandals that threaten their power. Mr. Blunt’s former chief of staff is a lobbyist, too—of course—who hired Mr. Abramoff as a rainmaker in 2004, after the initial revelations about his swindling of Indian tribes led to his dismissal by his old firm. And Mr. Blunt himself accepted favors from the same crooked defense contractors whose generosity led to the indictment and guilty plea of Mr. Cunningham.
So alarming is Mr. Blunt’s record that certain conservatives and Republicans are seeking to prevent his promotion. They have come to understand—in many instances, rather belatedly—that the corruption of the House leadership has sullied their movement. Until very recently, most on the right accepted the greasy DeLay machine as the price of Republican power.
With that power imperiled by exposure and prosecution, they demand a restoration of probity and a return to principle. What they will get is a pretense of reform—and they will accept that, too.