- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

With lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s guilty plea to charges of conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud, official Washington is girding itself for a very public revelation of conduct ranging from the shady to the felonious. So far, only one House member — Rep. Bob Ney — has been identified as a possible recipient of Abramoff’s bribery, although prosecutors anticipate the plea deal they reached to yield more names.

The focus on the investigation is on charges that Abramoff provided public officials and their relatives bribes in exchange for legislative action and favorable treatment of his clients. In the case of Mr. Ney, this included “a lavish trip to Scotland to play golf on world-famous courses, tickets to sporting events … regular meals at [Abramoff’s] upscale restaurant, and campaign contributions,” according to court documents. Mr. Ney denies any wrongdoing. It should be noted that junkets and campaign contributions are not illegal per se, and some of the charges against Abramoff were felonies unrelated to congressional backroom dealing.

What is clear from all this is that Congress — and the Republican leadership in particular — needs to fix how the lobbying system works. Polls show that Americans are disgusted enough with the legislative branch and the Abramoff case only confirms what they’ve always suspected about how Washington works. It is probable that more sitting members of Congress will face criminal charges as the investigation unfolds. Yet Democrats shouldn’t be too eager in their self-righteous condemnation, since the reality is both parties are likely to be implicated.

But the onus of leadership is on Republicans, especially since it was they who wrested control of the House in 1994 with an anti-corruption platform. They have now controlled Congress for the better part of a decade and whatever strides they might have made early on have fallen to the wayside. Returning to the theme which brought him to power, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been vocal in his belief that this is a problem Republicans must solve. “I think Abramoff is just part of a larger pattern that has got to be rethought,” he told The Washington Post. “Things have got to be done to really rethink where the center of the political process is. Right now, the center is a lobbying and PAC [political action committee] system center, which is not healthy.” Republicans would be wise to listen to their former speaker and not duck his challenge.

Severe restrictions on gifts to congressmen and staff should top any reform agenda. We do, however, caution against zealous overregulation. As undemocratic as the system can be, the right of the public to lobby and contribute to its representatives is a fundamental part of American democracy. When it addresses reform, Congress must resist the demagogues and find the proper balance between protecting this right and curtailing its abuse.

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