The man who has come to define "shady politician," Tammany Hall magician George Washington Plunkitt, nonetheless saw himself as a real stickler for what he called "honest graft." For instance it was Okay, he philosophized, to personally profit from an insider land deal, but to buy property and then push it for public use, well, that would be roguish.
In famously, and one gathers rather self-defensively, declaring that "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em," Plunkitt was only being honest about ubiquitous dishonesty. Politics was all about personal influence and the power and money that derive. A hundred years later -- a hundred years of ethics reform and lobbying reform and campaign-finance reform later -- things are pretty much the same, excepting the money involved is bigger.
"We heard continually out here that people were tired of the way business is conducted in Washington," says new Democratic House member Harry Mitchell, who just defeated one of the slickest demagogues I've yet to see, the Abramoff-tainted J.D. Hayworth of Arizona. (One can hear radio's Jack Benny: "Wasn't he wonderful, folks? He'll be back.") "They didn't like the way lobbyists had so much influence," Mitchell continued. "They didn't like the way rules were not enforced. They just didn't think things were being done right."
That's probably because they weren't, if "done right" means representing the interests of the vast majority of the body politic rather than money-spewing, hat-in-hand special interests.
Given the public's acute anguish, Democrats have an ideal opportunity to see that things are indeed done right -- in the form of slashing and burning the present system of "ethical" government. Preliminary news reports on what lies in store, however, would indicate that the public is about to be disappointed.
To maximize mostly the public relations appeal of honest graft, House "freshmen would offer, over as many as five days in January, separate amendments to ban gifts, meals and travel financed by lobbyists.... New rules mandating the disclosure of all contacts with lobbyists would be another vote, as would a rule requiring that the sponsors of funding for home-state pet projects be identified. The House would also vote on whether to reinstate budget rules, known as pay-as-you-go."
Banning the lobbyist manna of gifts, meals and travel is nice, but freebie fountain pens, cheeseburgers and plane rides aren't the real problem. Nor is an absent piece of paper disclosing lobbying encounters. Nor is identifying the sponsors of bridges to nowhere, nor, even, is the unpaid-for bridge the problem.
The problem -- the real cancer on democracy, to shamelessly borrow from John Dean (who, by the way, I recently learned shamelessly borrowed the metaphor from another distressed presidential assistant) -- is legalized bribery from the military contractors, industrial polluters, pharmaceutical concerns, insurance conglomerates, credit card companies, and on and on and on, whose profits-over-people interests their lobbyists merely represent.
That's the problem. It's the tons of cash flowing from special interest to representative that is the problem. It's the bundling, the winking, the subtle promise exchanged that is the problem. The problem is the selling out of average Americans.
Eliminate so much as one dollar transferred from a private concern to a public representative's campaign treasury, and you eliminate the problem.
Yet "Democrats face divisions on how far to go on some issues," such as campaign finance. So round and round we'll go, watching the ins protect their turf by scooping up as much honest graft as is humanly possible.
Bad move on the Democrats' part, assuming one regards the protection of a protection racket a bad move.
But here's an idea. The obscene amount of $2.6 billion in plutocratic bribery was spent on the recent midterms. Fine, raise it again, spend it again. But while you're at it, Dems, "earmark" $2.6 billion for lobbyists on behalf of the voiceless poor and middle class. They can then throw it right back at ya.
At least it would be a fair fight. And with a little equalization, you can then decide if the $10,000 bribe you got from Chase Manhattan Bank is socially worthier than the $10,000 bribe you got from the Children's Defense Fund.