Top job for Democrats: Cleaning up Congress

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“There is no native American criminal class,” Mark Twain once famously said, “except Congress.”

When the celebrated iconoclast said that more than a century ago, he was just poking fun – at least I think he was. But for the new 110th Congress that Democrats Nancy Pelosi, the new House speaker, and Harry Reid, the new Senate majority leader, took charge of this week, Twain’s wisecrack has real meaning.

The Iraq war may have been the great issue that broke the Republican grip on Congress in the November election, but corruption in the nation’s capital ran a close second in every post-vote poll.

With good reason. The Republicans who rode the political brilliance of Newt Gingrich and his promised reforms to power in the 1994 election quickly got rid of Gingrich (his own fall from ethical grace helped) and most of his meritorious reforms and fell into the corrupt clutches of Tom DeLay, the since-ousted GOP House majority leader, and Jack Abramoff, the larcenous lobbyist extraordinaire.

Republican “reformers” routinely stuffed legitimate legislation with millions of dollars’ worth of politically profitable but wholly undeserving “earmarks,” aka pork barrel spending. Lobbyists on Washington’s K Street regularly wrote legislation to benefit corporate clients and had it introduced with Republican sponsorship. While the Bush White House looked the other way, the GOP Congress conducted a daylight raid on the U.S. Treasury worthy of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

DeLay is now gone, awaiting trial on charges of violating Texas campaign finance laws. Abramoff has already pleaded guilty to an assortment of charges and is in prison. On still other corruption charges, he awaits a sentence to be determined in large part by how many congressional incumbents and/or staff aides he rats out to the feds. The cleanup of the Republican years on Capitol Hill has begun, but the odor lingers on.

Pelosi and Reid and the Democrats have an ambitious 100-hour package of reform measures, most of them desirable. A minimum wage increase, for example, is a decade overdue. The refusal by Bush and the Republican congressional majority to prevent federal health programs from negotiating lower drug prices, as Canada already does, is a shameless payoff to a profit-bloated pharmaceutical industry. So, too, was the outrageous gift of billions of dollars in tax writeoffs to the oil and gas giants when the industry was reaping some of the greatest profits in the history of capitalism.

And the hostility of the Bush Republicans to federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, which might benefit the most disabled Americans, is a crass political payoff to the GOP’s evangelical auxiliaries. And an especially merciless one.

The Pelosi-Reid Democrats pledge to undo these contemptible Bush Republican policies and will earn the plaudits of the American public if they do. But if they fail to cleanse Congress of its more fundamental shortcomings – its mindless partisanship, profligate spending for which no one is held accountable and unending addiction to largesse (dinners, drinks, plane trips, vacations, golf) from lobbyists – nothing else will matter.

The public has no real grasp of just how corrupt Congress has become. Indeed, Congress has no real understanding of how its sense of entitlement has dulled its sensitivity to its own corruption. Example: Congress no longer votes to raise its pay. It’s automatic. The only vote is one to prevent a pay increase – a neat gimmick that allows every member to swear, honor-bright, that he has never voted to raise his salary. The place needs fumigating.

Pelosi has promised to make the 110th Congress the most ethical ever. Actually, she can impose such virtue only on the House. The Senate is the sole arbiter of its own rules and can thumb its nose at any restrictions Pelosi imposes on the House, which, alas, would make her reform no more than a halfway measure.

The Iraq war was the other great issue that brought the Pelosi-Reid Democrats to power. But if the early omens are any indication, Democrats will be content to let Bush and the GOP twist in the wind on this issue. They’ll criticize and, more important, spend weeks, if not months, hauling administration officials before investigative committees examining war policies, Iraq reconstruction contracts and spending and, more important, the White House’s use (or misuse) of intelligence.

But beyond paying lip service to the Iraq (Baker-Hamilton) Study Commission’s recommendations, Democrats are unlikely to enunciate a clear and different Iraq policy of their own. They may quibble on any U.S. troop “surge” in Iraq but almost surely will not withhold funds for the troops. Iraq, they understand, is Bush’s personal war and they’re more than willing to let him wrestle with it.

For the next two years, Pelosi and Reid, even more than Bush, will drive American politics. How they handle Congress will have more impact on Democratic presidential prospects in 2008 than anything Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or any other the Democratic presidential candidates do in the next two years.

John Farmer is national political correspondent for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He can be contacted at jfarmer@starledger.com.

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