The Most Corrupt Congress in History?




D

emocrats call the GOP “a culture of
corruption.” Hilary Clinton claims that the Bush administration
is running Congress like a plantation. Charges of corruption are
so rampant that it’s difficult to reach any other conclusion
than that this Congress is, in fact, the most corrupt in history. 


Where to begin? A shift in Washington’s culture began in 1995
with Newt Gingrich and his Contract For America. With Tom DeLay’s
selection as majority whip, the GOP began the “K Street Project,”
which pressured trade associations and lobbying firms to hire only
Republicans and to contribute to GOP campaigns if they wanted access
to Congress. 


Lobbying has grown by leaps and bounds since then. According to
the

Washington Post

, the number of federal lobbyists has
more than doubled since 2000 to 34,750. In 1996 lobbyists spent
$800 million. The Center for Public Integrity found that, since
1998, they had spent nearly $13 billion to influence Congress. 


In the first study of its kind, the Center found that 1,300 registered
lobbyists—representing 6,000 clients—had given $1.8 million
to President George W. Bush since 2000. Fifty-two of these lobbyists
served as fundraisers for Bush and raised another $6 million. Another
79 lobbyists served as treasurers for Congressional campaign committees.
Of these lobbyists, some 250 are former members of Congress or agency
heads and 2,000 of them formerly worked in senior government positions.
Upon his election, Bush appointed 92 of them to advisory teams to
effect regulatory decisions in every branch of government. 


In February 2006 PoliticalMoneyLine revealed that lobbying groups
broke all records, spending $1.165 billion in the first six months
of 2005. This isn’t even the total as the law doesn’t
require that many programs and other services paid for by lobbyists
be disclosed. 


Some claim business corrupts government. During the Bush administration
business corruption produced the world’s largest bankruptcies:
Enron and WorldCom. Corruption at Global Crossing, Adelphia, Tyco,
ImClone, Merrill Lynch, Qwest, and Arthur Andersen resulted in additional
problems. In February 2006 American International Group, one of
the world’s largest insurance companies, was fined $1.64 billion
for fraud, bidrigging, and improper accounting. The same month Nortel
Networks paid a $2.4 billion settlement fee for an accounting scandal.
News of insider deals, kickbacks, illegal fees, and other corrupt
business practices fill the financial pages. 








President
Bush used insider information to sell oil company stock before it
plummeted; Dick Cheney was gifted millions in Halliburton retirement
benefits that he didn’t qualify for; and Senate Majority Bill
Frist (R-TN) is being investigated for his sale of millions of dollars
in stock in his family’s hospital business right before an
unfavorable public announcement. 


Former House Majority leader Tom DeLay, under indictment in Texas
for illegal fundraising and stripped of his leadership post, was
afterwards rewarded by party leaders with a seat on the Appropriations
Committee as well as a seat on the subcommittee that oversees the
Justice Department. DeLay, who owns an exterminator company in Texas,
was fined three times by the IRS for failing to pay payroll and
income taxes and paid court settlements three times for cheating
business partners. (Delay announced his resignation from the House
in April 2006.) 


A few more of the recent stories about Republicans caught with their
hands in the cookie jar include: 


  • Former Connecticut governor, John Rowland, served ten months in
    jail for accepting over $100,000 in gifts from people doing business
    with the state. 

  • In November California Republican Randy Cunningham resigned from
    the House after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes
    from defense contractors. 

  • In February it was revealed that Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA)
     inserted $50 million into the defense budget for military
    contracts that would benefit all six clients of his Congressional
    aide’s husband. The husband worked for the defense department
    before becoming a lobbyist and his wife, the aide, formerly worked
    as a lobbyist for the military industry. 


Such practices are not likely to stop. Newly elected House Majority
Leader, Rep. John A. Boehner (R-OH), maintains the lobbyist-financed
Freedom Project, with a lobbyist as treasurer and an all-lobbyist
executive board. The project raised $5.94 million over 10 years
and contributed $3.26 million to the GOP. Typical expenditures include
$21,990 at Sam and Harry’s steakhouse, $16,189 in fees at Manassas’s
Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, and $5,990 for lodging at La Quinta
Resort & Club near Palm Springs. 


The largest current corruption scandal involves Jack Abramoff, a
$100,000-plus fundraiser for Bush, accused of vote buying and influence
peddling on Capital Hill. A number of legislators are being investigated,
including Tom DeLay, whose former press secretary was an Abramoff
business partner. Abramoff, who contributed to 19 Republicans and
6 Democrats from 1999 to 2005, has close ties to Grover Norquist,
president of the right-wing Americans for Tax Reform, Ralph Reed,
former director of the Christian Coalition, and Karl Rove, Bush’s
political strategist. President Bush has escaped indictment, but
records indicate that during Bush’s first ten months in office,
Abramoff and his team met more than 200 times with top leaders,
including some 15 to 20 congresspeople and Bush officials such as
Attorney General Ashcroft and Cheney’s advisors. 








Lobbying
is popular because it pays off. One lobbying firm, the Carmen Group,
even publicizes the benefits and costs of its clients’ fees.
In 2004 they collected $11 million in fees and delivered $1.2 billion
in assistance to their clients. Republican appointees in the IRS
are allowing 65 accounting firms, law firms, banks, and investment
houses—major contributors to GOP coffers—to escape prosecution
if they pay a fine for creating illegal tax shelters for the super
rich. 


Campaign contributions also pay off. By supporting Bush in the election,
defense contractors benefited hugely. In 2000 the top six military
contractors spent $6.5 million in campaign contributions and $60
million on lobbying. Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq
pushed the stocks of the leading military contractors up 400 percent
and profits increased by 37 percent for Boeing, 44 percent for Lockheed
Martin, and 293 percent for Halliburton. 


Several years ago, 60 corporations, including Pfizer, HewlettPackard,
and Altria, decided to spend $1.6 million to lobby Congress to escape
taxes by creating a special low tax rate on foreign profits brought
back into the U.S. Stymied at first, the corporations were finally
successful when Bush signed a bill in 2004 to reduce taxes on foreign
profits from 35 percent to 5 percent. Last year these companies
returned around $300 billion in foreign earnings to the U.S., providing
the corporations with more than $100 billion in tax savings. 


By “influencing” Congress with gifts, trips, campaign
funding, jobs for relatives, and other inducements, lobbyists are
a major reason why legislators slip pet projects—called “earmarks”—into
the federal budget to benefit clients. In 1998, when the GOP took
control of Congress, there were 4,219 earmarks a year, but under
GOP tutelage earmarks have almost quadrupled to 15,877 last year,
worth $27 billion. These earmarks escape oversight and scrutiny
because they are inserted into the budget behind closed doors and
not included in the actual text of the legislation. According to
Congressional rules, this is perfectly legal; everyone does it. 


Taxpayers expect little from Congressional ethics committees. In
2005, faced with GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s indictment
for illegal campaign fundraising, the GOP weakened ethics rules
in place since 1968. The GOP changed the rules because DeLay had
been admonished several times for unethical conduct. Public Citizen,
a Congressional watchdog group, found that “Neither ethics
committee (House or Senate) has much of a track record for ethics
enforcement.” 


How long will the corruption last and how deep will it go? While
the American people appear unhappy with Bush’s war in Iraq
and his handling of Hurricane Katrina, they seem to accept his national
policies. The GOP is in firm control of the Supreme Court, the White
House, the House and the Senate, and voting districts have been
gerrymandered so few seats are expected to change hands in elections. 


Without a major change in voting behavior, the Republican Party
is likely to remain in charge and government corruption will continue
to break records.





Don
Monkerud is an Aptos, Californiabased writer covering politics.