- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

As Congress readies itself for possible indictments from the Abramoff scandal, it would be useful to remember some recent history. Democrats stand to gain politically by casting the scandal as the inevitable result of Republican corruption. Insofar as Jack Abramoff’s felonious activity was primarily with Republicans, they may be right — and we wouldn’t begrudge a political party from exploiting a campaign opportunity. Yet all this talk about partisan advantage distorts the true nature of the problem. To understand it, we’ll have to remind Democrats about their not-so-distant past.

As former Wall Street Journal reporter Brooks Jackson documented in his masterful look into Capitol Hill corruption, “Honest Graft,” the system that allowed a man like Mr. Abramoff to flourish largely was built by former Rep. Tony Coelho, California Democrat, in the 1980s. Allowed inside Mr. Coelho’s Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Mr. Jackson saw first hand how donations were wrung from corporate political action committees, which in turn expected a return on their investment, often in the form of legislative gifts.

By 1978, Mr. Jackson writes, “the cost of staying in office was rising rapidly.” Indeed, “the incumbents of 1978 had spent on the average only $87,000 to win their seats two years earlier. But the average cost of winning rose by 46 percent, to nearly $128,000, in the 1978 campaigns.” Newcomer Tony Coelho “was alert to the change.” He outspent his first House opponent $266,000 to $104,000. Veteran House Democrats took notice of Mr. Coelho’s fund-raising abilities and soon enough installed the young congressman as chairman of the DCCC, which is responsible for siphoning contributions to Democratic candidates.

Republicans too were getting in the fund-raising game, albeit belatedly, but Mr. Coelho outmaneuvered them. Writes Mr. Jackson, “Coelho appreciated… that business PACs gave mostly to open the doors of the lawmakers who controlled the good things the federal government had going.” Republicans erred in thinking businesses would support their free-market ideology. Mr. Coelho understood that what businesses really want from government is protection, tax breaks, loopholes and contracts. Ideology had nothing to do with it. Rather, business interests are best served by supporting incumbents and the party in power.

It was a lesson Republicans wouldn’t forget when they took control of the House in 1994. Specifically, Rep. Tom DeLay and others designed the “K Street Project” to co-opt the Coelho fund-raising juggernaut. “It’s not an overstatement to say that the K Street Project was a very direct attempt to replicate what Coelho had done in the mid-80s,” former Republican Rep. Vin Weber told us. “Republicans were frustrated with the Democrats’ success in extracting substantial amounts of money from the business community.”

This is not to suggest that only Mr. Coelho’s Democrats — or Mr. DeLay’s Republicans — benefited from the system. Mr. Jackson notes that “House members elected in 1976 got an average of 25.6 percent of their campaign funds from PACs. But those elected in 1986 would rely on PACs for 42 percent of their campaign receipts. Lawmakers of both parties leaned more and more on PACs, and less and less on the voters, to finance their campaigns.”

The same holds true today. As the Center for Responsive Politics records, between 1999 and 2006, Abramoff clients and associates gave $778,180 to the DCCC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The very same clients gave just $156,320 more to the two Republican committees — not a significant advantage for the party in power. Or, as Mr. Weber said, “whatever culture exists in Washington, it is purely bipartisan.”

Also reminiscent of today, the Coelho story ended in scandal, with Mr. Coelho retiring in humiliation. His departure, however, “changed nothing,” Mr. Jackson warned. “He left intact a deeply rooted system of money-based politics… and it continued to flourish after he was gone.”

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