Monday, December 5, 2005

After a While, You Get Used to It

Michael Kinsley notes that corruption in Washington follows a pattern.

It used to be said that the moral arc of a Washington career could be divided into four parts: idealism, pragmatism, ambition, and corruption. You arrive with a passion for a cause, determined to challenge the system. Then you learn to work for your cause within the system. Then rising in the system becomes your cause. Then finally you exploit the system—your connections in it, and your understanding of it—for personal profit.

And it remains true, sort of, but faster. Even the appalling Jack Abramoff had ideals at one point. But he took a shortcut straight to corruption. On the other hand, you can now trace the traditional moral arc in the life of conservative-dominated Washington itself, which began with Ronald Reagan’s inauguration and marks its 25th anniversary in January. Reagan and company arrived to tear down the government and make Washington irrelevant. Now the airport and a giant warehouse of bureaucrats are named after him.

By the 20th anniversary of their arrival, when an intellectually corrupt Supreme Court ruling gave them complete control of the government at last, the conservatives had lost any stomach for tearing down the government. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was more like an apology than an ideology. Meanwhile Tom DeLay—the real boss in Congress—openly warned K Street that unless all the choice lobbying jobs went to Republicans, lobbyists could not expect to have any influence with the Republican Congress. This warning would be meaningless, of course, unless the opposite was also true: If you hire Republican lobbyists, you and they will have influence over Congress. And darned if DeLay didn’t turn out to be exactly right about this!

[…]

Like medieval scholastics counting the angels on the head of a pin, Justice Department lawyers are struggling with the question of when favors to and from a member of Congress or a congressional aide take on the metaphysical quality of a corrupt bribe. The brazenness of the DeLay-Abramoff circle has caused prosecutors to look past traditional distinctions, such as that between campaign contributions and cash or other favors to a politician personally. Or the distinction between doing what a lobbyist wants after he has taken you to Scotland to play golf, and promising to do what he wants before he takes you to Scotland to play golf.

These distinctions don’t really touch on what’s corrupt here, which is simply the ability of money to give some people more influence than others over the course of a democracy where, civically if not economically, we are all supposed to be equal. So, where do you draw the line between harmless favors and corrupt bribery?

[…]

Perhaps conceding more than he intended, former Democratic Sen. John Breaux, now on K Street, told the New York Times that a member of Congress will be swayed more by 2,000 letters from constituents on some issue than by anything a lobbyist can offer. I guess if it’s a lobbyist versus 1,900 constituents, it’s too bad for the constituents. That seems fair.

After watching some of the punditocracy digest Duke Cunningham’s fate on the weekend talking heads shows, I can conclude that corruption and bribery are most egregious when it either happens in the other party or you didn’t get your cut.