Turning Corruption into Reform

01/16/2006 06:25 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As 2006 begins, it is already clear what many of the major issues will be: the war in Iraq, the limits of Presidential authority, the economy, and corruption in Washington. The latest Gallup poll found that "dissatisfaction with government" was seen by Americans as the second most serious problem - after the war in Iraq.

The Gallup poll was conducted before the latest news of corruption on Capitol Hill; therefore, the next poll will find even higher levels of public dissatisfaction with Washington. On January 3rd, powerful lobbyist Jack Abramoff cut a deal with Federal prosecutors. Abramoff plead guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud, and tax evasion. He will receive a reduced sentence of roughly 10 years in prison so long as he provides details on what Washington pundits are calling the Congressional scandal of the century.

Political donations from Abramoff, or from the Indian tribes he represented, overwhelming went to Republicans - although 6 Democrats received substantial donations from the tribes. The largest donations from Abramoff went to Tom DeLay of Texas, Richard Pombo of California, Bob Ney of Ohio, and John Doolittle of California. Republican Senator Conrad Burns of Montana also received monies from Abramoff and the tribes.

In parallel with the Abramoff scandal is the case of Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham who pled guilty to accepting bribes from defense contractors. Apparently, Cunningham cooperated with the Feds and wore a "wire" in some meetings. The bribery conspiracy is said to involve other Republican congressman such as Duncan Hunter and Jerry Lewis.

Democrats are not immune from these scandals. On January 12th, Brett Pfeiffer pled guilty to two counts of bribery stemming from a business deal in Nigeria. He implicated his former boss, Democratic Representative William Jefferson of Louisiana.

The House will reconvene on January 31st. The key question Congress will consider is how to bring about real reform. On December 5th, Democratic Representatives David Obey, Barney Frank, David Price, and Tom Allen introduced a reform package that would deal with many of the procedural abuses that came to light in the recent scandals. Their 14-point proposal Amending the Rules of the House to Protect the Integrity of the Institution would put Congressional travel off limits to lobbyists, strengthen fiscal responsibility, curb abuses of power, prevent the use of earmarks to buy votes, end the 2 day Congressional work week, prohibit legislation from being voted on without members having time to familiarize themselves with it, and prevent legislative items from being slipped into conference reports between the House and Senate without a full public vote by the conference committee.

On January 11th, House Democratic Leader, Nancy Pelosi, sent Republican Speaker, Dennis Hastert, a letter asking that three issues be immediately considered when Congress reconvenes. The first would be to reconstitute the House Ethics committee charged with investigating unethical behavior by member of Congress. "I urge you to join me in clearly stating to the Ethics Committee that it is our strong expectation that the committee will take all steps necessary to quickly initiate a fair and robust investigation of the alleged violations of criminal laws and the rules of the House by several Members, beginning with Congressmen Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, Richard Pombo, and John Doolittle."

The second issue would be for Speaker Hastert to bring to the House floor the comprehensive reform package proposed by Representatives Obey, Frank, Price, and Allen. In May, Democratic Congressman George Miller introduced legislation that would have banned all gifts of lobbyists to lawmakers. The House GOP leadership blocked that bill. Given this track record, it is unclear what the future holds for the Obey-Frank-Price-Allen proposal. Hastert is said to be working on his own lobbyist-friendly reform package.

According to Speaker Pelosi, the third issue is "to repeal legislation written by special interests dealing with energy tax breaks, prescription drug prices and vaccine liability." One "would repeal the $8 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to the oil and gas companies experiencing historic profits, and use the money instead to ease the home heating costs for low-income families and seniors and energy costs for small businesses and farmers." Another would "repeal the provision prohibiting Medicare officials from negotiating with drug companies for lower drug prices, which was inserted into the Medicare prescription drug bill at the insistence of the pharmaceutical industry." The final would "repeal... the liability protection for the drug industry that was inserted in the avian flu package."

There is a thread that runs between the misconduct of President Bush - his claims of extreme executive privilege - and the corruption of Congressional Republicans: abuse of power. For five years, progressives warned Americans that George W. Bush and his GOP cronies were looting America. Preoccupied by terrorists and a staggering economy, the electorate turned ignored the malfeasance. Now they are beginning to wake up.

What remains to be seen is whether electorate dissatisfaction with widespread governmental corruption will finally produce real reform. If Republicans block reform legislation, they hand Democrats a winning election issue. The GOP has to make a choice: will they let go of greed or power?