Saving the House
By DAVID BROOKS
I don't know what's more pathetic, Jack Abramoff's sleaze or Republican paralysis in the face of it. Abramoff walks out of a D.C. courthouse in his pseudo-Hasidic homburg, and all that leading Republicans can do is promise to return his money and remind everyone that some Democrats are involved in the scandal, too.
That's a great G.O.P. talking point: some Democrats are so sleazy, they get involved with the likes of us.
If Republicans want to emerge from this affair with their self-respect or electoral prospects intact, they need to get in front of it with a comprehensive reform offensive.
First, they need to hold new leadership elections. As Newt Gingrich and Vin Weber told me yesterday, Tom DeLay needs to take care of his own legal problems and give up the dream of returning as majority leader.
But Republicans need to do more than bump DeLay. They need to put the entire leadership team up for a re-vote. That's because the real problem wasn't DeLay, it was DeLayism, the whole culture that merged K Street with the Hill, and held that raising money is the most important way to contribute to the team.
New leadership elections would, at least, make the current leaders re-earn their slots with new platforms. At best, they would allow the party to reinvigorate itself under new management. A party led by young talents like Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, Mike Pence and Mark Kirk would be taken seriously as a party of reform.
Second, the Republicans need to get a grip on earmarks.
Earmarks are the provisions that single members can stick into gigantic bills to steer spending toward favored projects. They're an invitation to corruption. If individual members of Congress can control $100 million federal contracts or billion-dollar pork barrel projects, then of course companies are going to find ways to funnel graft to those members.
To prove they're serious about special-interest spending, Republicans could declare a one-year earmark moratorium until they get a handle on this problem. Or they could promote legislation mandating that earmarks eat up only 1 percent of any spending bill's total cost.
Third, Republicans need to steal David Obey and Barney Frank's lobbying-reform ideas. For some insane reason, having to do with their own special interests, Democrats have been slow to trumpet the ideas coming from their own party. Republicans have a chance to hijack them before the country notices.
Specifically, there should be a ban on lobbyist-paid travel. (Members should be allowed to take spouses on publicly financed travel because it is important that members get out and see the world.) Former members should not be allowed to lobby on the House floor. All lobbyist contacts with government officials should be posted on the Internet.
Gingrich intriguingly suggests abolishing all fund-raising in the Washington metro area. Make the lobbyists go to the districts if they want to attend $1,000 cocktail parties.
Fourth, enforce House rules. There's bound to be corruption when spending provisions can be slipped into legislation in the dead of night, outside the normal oversight procedures. There's bound to be corruption when members are forced to vote on sprawling bills nobody has a chance to inspect. Instead, all legislation should be posted online for 72 hours before the vote, so the staff and bloggers can nitpick and expose.
Fifth, rebuild the ethics committees. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute proposes a bifurcated process. The investigations should be conducted by a commission of former members and former staffers. That way, current members are not investigating one another. Then the committees can vote on the commission recommendations.
Sixth, readopt the pay-as-you-go budget rules. As long as a $2.6-trillion-a-year government is expanding into more areas of national life, businesses will have an incentive to invest in lobbyists. The 1990 pay-as-you-go rules, which forced Congress to offset new expenditures with spending restraint not only imposed fiscal discipline but also forced pork projects to compete for limited resources.
Finally, today before noon, fire Bob Ney as chairman of the House Administration Committee. For God's sake, Republicans, show a little moral revulsion.
Back in the dim recesses of my mind, I remember a party that thought of itself as a reform, or even a revolutionary movement. That party used to be known as the Republican Party. I wonder if it still exists.