- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

Members of Congress seem divided over how to straighten up their act after the Abramoff scandals.

Should they actually reform the system or just give it a lick and a promise?

If they were serious, they wouldn’t just cut back but cut out those infamous earmarks — midnight changes to appropriation bills in committee. Those quiet little grabs have proliferated — from a couple of thousand special projects tucked away in the budget back in 1998 to an estimated 14,000 in 2005. It’s not easy keeping count. Just how many bridges to nowhere is the American taxpayer supposed to pay for?

Meanwhile, the number of lobbying outfits in Washington has doubled. (It only seems like more.)

Congress also can’t decide whether to ban all the free or at least cut-rate travel offered its members by all kinds of interests, commercial and/or political, each with its own agenda to push for good or ill. This passes for a difficult ethical question in Washington: whether to take a lot or only a little. That this should be a complicated decision for the Honorables says worlds about their ethical sensibilities, which seem to have flat-lined some time ago. Why not Just Say No to all the freebies? That would be too simple. That is, too ethical.

But shouldn’t our country’s leaders have the opportunity to learn something about the rest of the world, or even visit interesting spots in our own country?

Sure. And if it’s important to have our public servants make such trips — and not just the usual meetings-in-resorts between rounds of golf — let the public pay for it. Give each Honorable a travel budget and let ‘em spend it how they want. And then let them justify their choices at election time. That way, they’d be beholden only to We the People, not the next Jack Abramoff to come along.

Back in his day, Will Rogers pointed out the only drawback to such an ideal arrangement: “The taxpayers are sending congressmen on expensive trips abroad,” he noted. “It might be worth it except they keep coming back.”

In the end, doubtless some negligible but very complicated reforms will be enacted after the usual hemming, hawing and committee hearings. By then, thanks to the public’s attention deficit disorder, the whole subject may have been forgotten. Those who don’t really want to change are counting on that.

If lobbying is ever reformed, it’ll doubtless entail copies in triplicate of forms composed in pure govspeak. Or maybe an independent ethics commission with a vast, well-paid bureaucracy and elaborate rules that it would take, yes, a lobbyist to interpret.

“There is no distinctly American criminal class,” Mark Twain assured us, “except Congress.” Where could he have possibly gotten that idea? Maybe it wasn’t by observing the occasional scandal but by taking note of the “reform” enacted after.

How else explain the kind of campaign finance reform that’s more an Incumbent Protection Act? The current law actually curtails political speech 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election — just when political speech is most relevant. And our Supreme Court thinks this is just dandy, First Amendment or no First Amendment. Moral of the story: Call something a reform and it may sound constitutional.

To quote Mr. Dooley, the immortal Irish barkeep whose wisdom Finley Peter Dunne bequeathed the nation a century ago, ” ‘tis a gr-reat mistake to think that annywan ra-aly wants to rayform. Ye niver heerd iv a man rayformin’ himsilf. He’ll rayform other people gladly. He likes to do it. But a healthy man’ll niver rayform while he has th’ strenth. A man doesn’t rayform till his will has been impaired….” And even then he may adopt a reform that really isn’t much of one.

Wonderfully pliant concept, reform. If you didn’t know any better, you might confuse it with another form of corruption.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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