The difference between Randy "Duke" Cunningham and many of his Congressional colleagues is one of degree, not kind. He is an extreme manifestation of a corruption pervasive in Congress, a crookedness that spreads with the size of the federal government. Had Cunningham just waited a little while and become a defense firm lobbyist, he could have received his Rolls-Royce, yacht, and Louis-Philippe commode legally.
In Washington, D.C., cause and effect are never examined honestly. Politicians are expert at bemoaning a troubling effect even as they deepen its cause. So while the Democrats crank up their "culture of corruption" campaign and Republicans express to the press horror at their colleague Cunningham's conduct, both parties will continue to approve and strengthen the catalyst of money-related corruption: the Leviathan-like size and power of the federal government. This is the reason so much dirty money is sloshing back and forth between them and lobbyists. The more the federal government's reach is extended, the more lobbyists' money is spent to stay or release its hand.
What will come out of the furor over Cunningham? A new crop of politicians willing to reduce the size of government so that lobbyists' won't bother to buy them off? No, the only change that is likely to occur is the creation of a few more phony "ethics" guidelines. Perhaps Congress will even hold another "hour-long ethics briefing." Remember that episode earlier this year? The "ethics" briefing was to help Congressmen learn how to fill out the proper forms after lunching with lobbyists.
Congress has become avarice writ large, taking more and more money from the American people for projects the people never see, use, or need but enrich pols and the special interests to which they are allied. In any other context this would be called theft. In Congress it is called outreach to constituents or government services. The real crisis, in other words, is not this or that avaricious clown (who is usually too inept to conceal his corruption like his colleagues) but a widely held corrupt political philosophy that normalizes avarice as a routine practice of the federal government.
"Ethics" rules have been multiplying since the Watergate era. Yet they never make politicians any more ethical, because they are detached from any just political or moral philosophy that would impress upon politicians the duty to exercise power modestly. The money scandals of recent years are due not to the absence of enough ethical rules but the presence of a widening federal trough that attracts an absurdly large number of lobbyists to D.C. each year.
The test of a politician's commitment to getting "money out of politics" is not whether he supports "campaign finance reform" but whether he is willing to remove money from the federal purse and return it to taxpayers. "Campaign finance reform" and big government just cancel each other out. Any serious answer to the question -- what is proper for a Congressman to do? -- depends upon the answer to a more basic one: What is proper for the federal government to do?
One of the glaring hypocrisies of the liberal outrage over Ken Tomlinson's tenure at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- in numerous editorials, he has been castigated for spending $10,000 on a lobbyist during his campaign to bring some programming balance to PBS -- is the indifference these same editorialists display when PBS, a government program with no real federal imperative, uses taxpayer money to hire much more expensive lobbyists to guarantee its access to taxpayer money.
Robert Novak reported on this form of corruption in June, noting that Tomlinson's tiny expenditure was dwarfed by "public broadcasting's permanent payments to big-time lobbyists. Respected Republican lobbyist Charlie Black's firm has represented PBS for four years at $180,000 a year.... Lobbyist Domenic Ruscio, a former Carter administration official, for many years has represented the Association of Public Television Stations, receiving $60,000 a year. He has been trying to pack the nine-member CPB with four from the public television community that the board presumably is overseeing."
Cunningham is a clumsy practitioner of a lobbying racket that is ubiquitous in D.C., a racket that revolves around a federal government that feels entitled to steal money from the taxpayer for frivolous purposes. Had Cunningham waded more circumspectly into the cesspool, he might have come up as clean as his colleagues with his yacht and commode.
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