A new Gilded Age?

December 01, 2005

Relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists are so vulnerable to corruption that the line is easily crossed. Lawmakers depend increasingly on well-heeled lobbyists for the campaign contributions they need to stay in office; lobbyists need lawmakers to shape laws and spending decisions to benefit their clients.

It's a short leap, really, from wealthy corporate and other interests showering campaign cash on sympathetic legislators to the sort of out-and-out bribery practiced by disgraced Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham and the defense industry lobbyists who plied him with at least $2.4 million in personal gifts in return for federal contracts.

As Capitol Hill roils through another of its periodic anti-corruption purges - one that could ensnare a half-dozen or more lawmakers - leaders in both parties must work to reform an environment where all but the most flamboyant exchanges of favors are considered business as usual.

Democrats, in particular, should not be so smug as to assume voters will blame this wrongdoing on Republicans simply because the GOP controls Congress and mostly Republican lawmakers are involved. Polls suggest both parties have been equally tarred.

The full size and shape of what may be unearthed in the several investigations under way is not yet known. But Norman Ornstein, a veteran congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has taken to comparing this period to the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, when robber baron industrial leaders spread their money around Washington to have their way with Congress and put cronies on the federal payroll.

This mess might not be so extensive, but the need for reforms seems obvious. Probably first on the list would be the most difficult: doing away with the pork barrel earmarks that allow a single appropriator, such as Mr. Cunningham, to direct millions in federal funds as he pleases.

Lobbyist disclosure and gift restrictions should also be tightened. The moribund House Ethics Committee must be revived, and the co-opted Federal Election Commission must be replaced. Campaign finance laws need a complete overhaul.

Beyond that, what's required is a change in the anything-goes tone in Congress that somehow encouraged Mr. Cunningham, possibly other lawmakers and certainly some lobbyists to think they were above the law.

The sheer audacity of Mr. Cunningham scam of grabbing larger and larger payoffs from defense contractors to finance a posh lifestyle clearly beyond his means suggests he never expected to be caught. Or if he was, it wouldn't matter. His former colleagues should be furious at the insult, and move quickly to repair the damage.

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