mardi, avril 04, 2006

Spring House-Cleaning

I'm no fan of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Watching him and some of his less squeamish buddies roll roughshod over Democratic members of Congress and any members of his own party who happened to get in their way was infuriating to those of us who still expect certain minimal standards of bipartisan cooperation from our legislators. But if nothing else, you have to give the guy credit for a good sense of timing. Depriving his opponents of the satisfaction of seeing him hooked like a bad act at the Apollo Theater, Sugarland's native son jauntily skipped off the Congressional stage on his own two feet. "I have no regrets today and no doubts," he was quoted as saying.

Instead, after weeks of prayerful thinking, he said he had concluded that it was time to end this chapter of public service.

Contrast this with the attitude of his former ally, the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Whether he's sorry for what he did or sorrier for being caught doing it, Abramoff, who faces many years in prison, seems positively remorseful. Representative DeLay, under indictment in his home state on charges related to his role in engineering a redistricting plan that reaped great rewards for Texas Republicans, showed only confidence about the future.

That may be good strategy for a man looking for work among his old colleagues , but it is also true to form.

Relentless in pushing the boundaries of what is ethically tolerable in Beltway political circles, DeLay has never been a man to suffer from self doubt, even when reprimanded by his own colleagues on the notoriously indolent and spineless House Ethics Committee. Indeed, his antics, and the aggressive tactics of Travis County prosecutor Ronnie Earle, sometimes seem to be as much a story of a down home clash of giant-sized personalities as it is one of allegations of criminal wrong-doing.

It will be fascinating to see if Earle can make the campaign-finance money laundering charges stick. It will also be interesting to watch the continuing corruption investigation centered on Jack Abramoff play itself out. Abramoff has already pleaded guilty to plotting to corrupt public officials (which include members of Congress) and apparently he is still singing.

Many Democrats are happily waiting for the ax to fall on other Republican members of Congress, while some Republicans are also nervous. It is true that, during the decades they were in power, Democrats had their own ethical problems. But the cloud of corruption investigations now gathering over the Republican-led Congress indicates that DeLay and his cronies have pushed the D.C. "pay-to-play" culture well beyond its former boundaries. It can only be good for House Republicans that he is gone, if not forgotten.

Yet joy on the part of those concerned with public integrity is decidedly premature. If one is to judge from the limp lobby reform package that recently came out of the Senate, members of that body, both Democrat and Republican, have little stomach for policing their own conduct. Democrats also have a record of re-districting to shore up their own electoral prospects and to protect incumbents. Indeed, they have shown an disquieting unwillingness to agitate for ethical reforms that would affect them directly.

In interviews DeLay has apparently commented that what he did was not illegal, nor was it unprecedented. It may turn out that he was right on the first count. That would be a darned shame.

Sadly, on the second count, we already know that, when it comes to both Republican and Democrats, the difference between him and many of his colleagues is not a matter of poles, but of degrees. It is past time for a good spring clean in both Houses of Congress. The question for the Democrats is: will the party in opposition have the integrity to look hard at its own complicity in fostering the kind of ethically lax environment in which a Tom DeLay could not only thrive, but walk away apparently convinced in his own mind that he had done nothing wrong?

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