Thursday, January 12, 2006

It’s not healthy to blow your favorite evening beverage through your nostrils. But that’s how surprised I was to hear National Democratic Chairman Howard Dean deny any Democrats took money from Jack Abramoff.

Unless you’ve been on the moon for a while, you probably have heard Abramoff is a formerly well-connected Republican who pleaded guilty to federal charges tied to his lobbying operations. Right-wing bloggers and others pounced on Mr. Dean and flailed away, since a number of Democratic senators and representatives already have given Abramoff-associated money to charity. How, then, could Mr. Dean say otherwise? Right?

But, I checked it out and, guess what? Mr. Dean was right. Although both Democrats and Republicans did, in fact, receive money from Abramoff’s clients, only Republicans received personal donations from Abramoff himself.

Yet, some journalists, particularly in the shorthand of television news, have given a different impression, framing Abramoff’s donations as more bipartisan than they really were. So Mr. Dean was ready when veteran CNN newsman Wolf Blitzer asked him: “Should Democrats who took money from Jack Abramoff… give that money to charity or give it back?”

“There are no Democrats who took money from Jack Abramoff,” Mr. Dean answered. “Not one. Not one single Democrat. … There is no evidence that Jack Abramoff ever gave any Democrat any money, and we’ve looked through all those FEC [Federal Election Commission] reports to make sure that’s true.”

He’s right, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which keeps track of such things. Their analysis of FEC records shows Democrats received about a third of the $4.2 million donated between 1998 and 2005 by tribes that hired Abramoff to represent them in Washington, but none from Abramoff’s own wallet.

By all indications, donations from the Indian tribes were no less legitimate than donations to candidates from any other individual, organization or industry with an interest in legislation. That’s a shortcoming of campaign donation reports: They tell how much money someone gave but not why.

If anything, the tribes are one of the true victims in the Abramoff saga. Investigators say Abramoff referred to his Indian clients with racist slurs in his e-mails and represented some tribes while also representing rival tribes competing for the same casino turf — the mother of all conflicts of interest.

Nevertheless, the stink of scandal is so fierce in Washington these days that numerous Democratic as well as Republican senators and congressmen have been giving money to charity equal to what they received from tribes linked to Abramoff to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, for example, gave up a measly little $2,000 donation she received from a tribe, and the Bush-Cheney campaign gave up a $6,000 donation. But, as Democrats quickly note, the Bush campaign kept another $100,000 Abramoff directly raised, earning coveted “pioneer” status for himself among Bush donors.

The Abramoff scandal, like some other recent high-profile dust-ups in Congress, is fundamentally a Republican scandal, if only because Republicans are so unquestionably in charge of Congress. To the victors go the spoils and the spoilage.

As the party took over both houses of Congress in 1994 with a promise to clear out the foul odor of earlier Democratic scandals, the stench of today’s scandal is rendered even fouler by the whiff of hypocrisy.

Now, this scandal moves through the phases of other major scandals that preceded it. First comes the finger-pointing, then the contrition and the probes and proposed legislation to finally — finally — clean up the mess in Washington. Yet, the reforms that followed the scandals of Watergate or Abscam or former House Speaker Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, and various others have inevitably led to new loopholes that open the way to new scandals.

The good news is that these days, Congress is more trustworthy, contrary to the public’s impression in the polls, precisely because new regulations have made raising and spending money on candidates and lobbying more transparent.

Reform-minded senators like John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Russell Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, and representatives like Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Democrat, are introducing new legislation to require even more reporting and restrictions on relations between lobbyists and members of Congress.

That’s the right way to go. We’ll never eliminate the love of money from politics but, like the love between teenagers who try to sneak around behind their parents’ backs, we can try to shine brighter lights on it.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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