Columnist Michael Kinsley once wrote, "The scandal in Washington isn't what's illegal. It's what's legal."
Consider, for example, what lobbyists do. They make campaign contributions. They chair re-election committees. They give money to foundations and political action committees controlled by members of Congress. They hold fundraisers that yield a lot more money than individual lobbyists are allowed to contribute. They sponsor retreats for lawmakers. They throw lavish parties to honor politicians.
Those things are legal, even though, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken this month, 54 percent of the public think that it should be illegal for registered lobbyists to organize fundraisers. Sixty-seven percent say it should be illegal for lobbyists to make campaign contributions to members of Congress or congressional candidates. And an overwhelming majority—90 percent—say lobbyists should not be allowed to give gifts, trips, or anything else of value to members of Congress.
Now that lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, R-Calif., have pleaded guilty to giving or accepting illegal gifts, Congress is saying, "They did that? How shocking. Let's declare more things illegal so we'll stop doing them."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., is considering proposing a ban on travel paid for by lobbyists. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wants disclosure rules to cover "grassroots lobbying," advertising campaigns to get voters to support or oppose a given piece of legislation or a certain nominee, such as the ads trying to influence public opinion on whether the Senate should confirm Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.
Shouldn't the public have the right to know who is paying for these ads?
Congressional Democrats have their own ideas about reform. "If we're ever going to have real change here, we must kill the K Street Project," declared House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
The K Street Project was promoted by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, after his party took over Congress in 1995. The idea was to pressure lobbyists and trade associations into hiring Republicans and giving more money to GOP candidates in order to gain access to House leaders. It formalized the "pay to play" system that Democratic congressional leaders created in the 1970s and 1980s.
Republicans refuse to be outbid on reform. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement last week saying, "If I am elected majority leader, there will no longer be a K Street Project, or anything else like it."
Boehner has also proposed banning "earmarks" in spending bills—an idea popular among fiscal conservatives. Members of Congress could no longer attach money for pet projects to a larger bill and have those funds carried along with the budget package. Lawmakers often do so at the bidding of lobbyists. But they also do so to benefit constituents, who expect their representatives to "bring home the bacon."
Without earmarks, incumbents might find it more difficult to keep getting re-elected. More than a few members breathed a sigh of relief when Boehner's leading rival, Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, claimed he had enough GOP pledges of support to clinch the majority leader's job.
Republicans are under pressure to embrace rules changes, because they have a serious problem. In this month's Gallup poll for USA Today and CNN, only 42 percent of the public said that most members of Congress deserve to be re-elected. That percentage is far lower than the majorities who have felt that way during the last five congressional elections. In fact, you have to go back to 1994 to find the same level of discontent. And 1994, of course, was the last time voters overthrew the majority party in Congress.
Republicans are hoping that the corruption issue won't primarily hurt their party. In fact, the public does not see Republican members of Congress as significantly more, or less, corrupt than Democrats. In a December Gallup Poll, 47 percent called "many" or "almost all" Republicans in Congress "corrupt," while 44 percent felt that way about Democrats.
Still, when Gallup asked this month which party in Congress would do a better job of dealing with corruption, Democrats had a 12-point advantage, 44 percent to 32 percent. That's not because people think Democrats are less corrupt, but because people know Democrats are out of power. And they know money follows power.