After Tom DeLay: The Corruption Eruption Continues

At the beginning of January, Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX) announced that he would not attempt to return to his post as House majority leader. After being indicted by a Texas grand jury on money-laundering charges, DeLay had initially said he was stepping down only temporarily. Apparently his simultaneous involvement in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal was too much even for the GOP to handle.

But the Republican Party soon made it clear that while it is cleaning up its aesthetics, it is not changing its behavior. First, the GOP announced that DeLay would still be a force within the party, naming him to replace the disgraced Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) on the House Appropriations Committee. Cunningham had recently pled guilty to using his position on the powerful committee to solicit bribes—an admission that prompted many Republicans to feign outrage. Yet those same Republicans then replaced one indicted lawmaker with another.

The race is now on to replace DeLay as majority leader, and the top candidates are Representatives Roy Blunt of Missouri and John Boehner of Ohio—both DeLay clones in their own way. As the Wall Street Journal noted, “Neither [Mr. Boehner] nor Mr. Blunt represents a major break with a party establishment. Mr. Blunt is married to a corporate lobbyist; Mr. Boehner served as his party’s liaison to the business lobbying community.”

It goes further than that. Blunt “has paid roughly $88,000 in fees since 2003 to a consultant under indictment in Texas with DeLay,” according to the Associated Press. Under DeLay’s tutelage, Blunt has also become a master of using his position in the House to reward his son’s lobbying clients.

The Washington Post reported in 2003 that “only hours after Rep. Roy Blunt was named to the House’s third-highest leadership job,” he tried “to quietly insert a provision benefiting Philip Morris USA into the 475-page bill creating a Department of Homeland Security.” Blunt, the paper noted, “has received large campaign donations from Philip Morris, his son works for the company in Missouri and the House member has a close personal relationship with a Washington lobbyist for the firm.” As the Post noted, he later married the Philip Morris lobbyist, even wrangling a waiver out of the House ethics committee to allow him not to report the couple’s wedding gifts.

Like DeLay, Blunt has not been shy about bringing corporate lobbyists right into the heart of Republican policy-making. In fact, he has actually turned over some of his most important official duties directly to big business. For instance, the Washington Post reported in May 2005 that during the push for a round of massive new corporate tax cuts, “the task of rounding up the votes was delegated by Blunt’s whip operation to a coalition of lobbyists, all of whom had clients with huge stakes in the outcome.”

Boehner is the same kind of character, though he is perhaps more detestable because he publicly pretends to be Mr. Clean. In pitching his candidacy to Republican House members, Boehner claimed, “I cut my teeth here as a reformer. . . . So when it comes to institutional ethics and reform, I’ve got some experience.” That is as laughable as Bill Clinton claiming to be a role model for marital fidelity. Boehner has not only voted against most major campaign-finance and ethics-reform proposals; his behavior is that of a corporate lobbyist dressed up in politician’s clothing.

The New York Times‘s Bob Herbert reported in 1996 that on one recent day Boehner nonchalantly “took it upon himself to begin handing out money from tobacco lobbyists to certain of his colleagues on the House floor.” The congressman “was not deterred by the fact that the House was in session [and] he was not constrained by any sense that passing money around the floor of the House of Representatives was a sacrilege. He had the checks and he dispensed them.” The move was so brazen, one Republican lawmaker said that if Boehner’s behavior “is not illegal, it should be.” That same year, Boehner took the lead in appearing on Sunday news shows to claim that Newt Gingrich’s confessed ethics violations were no big deal.
Boehner has also made a name for himself convincing corporate lobbyists to pay for lavish convention galas celebrating—who else?—himself. As USA Today reported in 2004, “the longest-running convention party is the one being thrown all four nights of the convention to honor Rep. John Boehner. . . . The party-every-night tradition goes back to the GOP’s San Diego convention in 1996, where nightly bashes for Boehner—then a member of the House leadership—got a reputation as the best events in town.” The newspaper reported that the shakedown operation was “led by Bruce Gates, a lobbyist for Washington Council Ernst & Young, a firm whose client list includes employers such as General Electric, Ford, AT&T and Verizon.” According to the Congress-watching Washington tabloid The Hill, Gates now serves as the treasurer of Boehner’s political action committee.

Between these twin corporate toadies, one might expect the race to replace DeLay to come down to which candidate is connected to indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and which one is not. There’s just one problem—both Blunt and Boehner have extensive ties to him.

The nonpartisan Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW) reported in September 2005 that “Blunt and his staff have close connections to überlobbyist Jack Abramoff,” including Blunt’s acceptance of campaign contributions linked to Abramoff at the same time that Blunt signed a letter supporting legislation to benefit Abramoff’s clients. Likewise, the Cincinnati Post reported in early January that Boehner “received $32,500 in political contributions from Indian tribes represented by [Abramoff], placing him in the top tier of lawmakers who got donations from the lobbyist or his clients.”

A WAR ON PRIVACY—Revelations about President Bush ordering a domestic spying operation widely deemed illegal [see the Washington SpectatorJanuary 15, 2006] have once again highlighted that Americans’ privacy rights are under an assault motivated by both partisan objectives and big money interests. The recent history is not pretty.

On the partisan side, Bush officials at the FBI and the Pentagon have been exposed for using “national security” as an excuse to spy on anti-war, anti-poverty and civil rights groups—aka President Bush’s major political opponents. Likewise, the Bush Justice Department placed provisions in the Patriot Act that allow federal agents to search citizens’ library and bookstore records without the traditionally required warrants—again, provisions that have lent themselves to partisan abuse. Facing criticism, the administration claimed in 2003 that those provisions had never been used, but the University of Illinois released a study showing that scores of libraries had in fact been contacted by the government with requests for records.

And the partisan assault on privacy has now apparently come to involve tax records. TheTacoma News Tribune recently reported that administration officials at the Internal Revenue Service “collected information on the political party affiliations of taxpayers in 20 states” under the guise of tax enforcement. This followed a move in late 2004 in which Republicans inserted a last-minute provision into an unrelated spending bill giving “staffers on the House and Senate appropriations committees broad access to Americans’ tax returns,” according to theWashington Post. In publicly exposing the provision, Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) laid out exactly what it would do: “Any agent of the chairman of the Appropriations Committee—and they could designate anybody as an agent—could go into IRS facilities anywhere in the country and get your tax returns,” he said.

That is correct—Republicans were trying to give themselves the legal authority to obtain your private tax returns for any reason. Richard Nixon’s spirit, wherever it was, surely smiled. He was the one who, in appointing a new IRS commissioner, famously said, “I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a bitch, that he will do what he’s told, that every income tax return I want to see, I see, that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends.”

The corporate assault on privacy is much more out in the open than the politically partisan one. Instead of employing shadowy tactics from deep within the federal bureaucracy or using stealth provisions in unrelated bills, corrupt politicians have very publicly sought to eliminate Americans’ financial privacy at the request of their big-business donors.

The most brazen of these efforts came in November 2003. The San Francisco Chroniclereported that “in addition to previous votes that gutted state provisions to prevent financial institutions from sharing customers’ information with others,” Congress passed a bill to “roll back some of the [states’] anti-identity-theft measures.” The bill, pushed by the credit-card and financial-services industries, essentially pre-empted states’ financial privacy laws and replaced them with far weaker federal standards. That bill left open loopholes—for instance ones that have left private telephone records highly susceptible to theft. Today, you can pay $110 to a service called Locatecell.com, and get a list of the outgoing calls from any cell phone customer whose name, address and telephone number you know. Congress has known about these kinds of loopholes for months—and possibly years—but has refused to close them. Why? Because privacy safeguards get in the way of marketing schemes by corporations—corporations who buy off politicians.
These moves come as the New York Times in January reported that IRS officials are now defying a 1976 court order and refusing to disclose information about the audit rates of big corporations and the rich. It’s ultimate secrecy for the Big Money interests, regardless of the law, and not even the very basic right to minimum privacy for ordinary Americans.

MEDIA MANIPULATION—On both the corruption scandals and on privacy issues, major pundits continue to distort development in ways that lay bare a sheer contempt for the truth. That, or they are guilty of such journalistic idiocy as to publicly indict the profession on malpractice charges.

Take Hardball‘s Chris Matthews. He tried to claim that the bribery scandal surrounding “Duke” Cunningham is not “part of any Republican culture of corruption. . . . [He] was sort of a lone wolf in that department.” Matthews then said the corruption issue was “not going to be part of a larger story of Washington this year.” Matthews, of course, never acknowledged his own personal stake in downplaying the situation. As the Hollywood Reporter noted back in 2003, Matthews joined Fox News’s Tony Snow and Brit Hume in headlining a major fundraiser for one of indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s charities that is at the center of the corruption problem. The lower the profile of the Abramoff scandal, the less Matthews is exposed to scrutiny.

But it didn’t stop there. A few days later, Matthews claimed that DeLay “really lives basically like a regular middle-class person. He doesn’t live well at all.” Incredibly, he made this comment just weeks after the Associated Press published a blockbuster exposé of DeLay’s royal lifestyle:

“As Tom DeLay became a king of campaign fund-raising, he lived like one, too. He visited cliff-top Caribbean resorts, golf courses designed by PGA champions and four-star restaurants, all courtesy of donors who bankrolled his political money empire. Over the past six years, the former House majority leader and his associates have visited places of luxury most Americans have never seen, often getting there aboard corporate jets arranged by lobbyists and other special interests. Public documents reviewed by the Associated Press tell the story: At least 48 visits to golf clubs and resorts; 100 flights aboard company planes; 200 stays at hotels, many world-class; and 500 meals at restaurants, some averaging nearly $200 for a dinner for two.”

That might seem like middle class to the D.C. cocktail-party sensibilities of someone like Matthews, but it sure isn’t middle class to, well, America’s middle class.

For its part, Time magazine did its best to portray the Bush administration as isolated from the lobbying scandal. The magazine’s proof? Bush supposedly “does not like to have contributors or local officials in his cars, planes or holding rooms unless they are there for a good reason, and he sometimes questions his underlings sharply if someone he considers extraneous is admitted.” Readers are expected to swallow this virtuous image as truth—and, presumably, to forget that in just the first 10 months of Bush’s first term, “GOP fundraiser Jack Abramoff and his lobbying team logged nearly 200 contacts with the new administration,” according to a May 2005 story by the Associated Press.

The same out-of-touch rhetoric came from Time‘s Joe Klein in his comments on Bush’s warrantless wiretaps. Klein led off his January 8 piece by attacking Democrats for being critical of Bush’s illegal actions, accusing them of “civil-liberties fetishism [that] is a hangover from the Vietnam era, when the Nixon Administration wildly exceeded all bounds of legality—spying on antiwar protesters and civil rights leaders.” Klein wants us to believe that such spying isn’t taking place today—even though the New York Times in 2005 reported that the FBI “has collected at least 3,500 pages of internal documents in the last several years on a handful of civil rights and antiwar protest groups” (NBC News later confirmed that the Pentagon was engaging in this activity as well).

But that distortion is nothing compared with the end of Klein’s piece. He claimed that “a strong majority would favor the NSA program” illegally ordered by President Bush. And then, in a final crescendo of dishonesty, he asserted that in criticizing the president’s actions, “Democrats are about as far from the American mainstream on these issues as Republicans were when they invaded the privacy of Terri Schiavo’s family in the right-to-die case last year.”

Klein published his piece one day after the Associated Press released a poll showing “a majority of Americans want the Bush administration to get court approval before eavesdropping on people inside the United States, even if those calls might involve suspected terrorists.” In criticizing the administration for not getting warrants, as required by law, Democrats were standing with 56 percent of the public. By contrast, ABC News reported that just 27 percent of the public supported the Republicans’ intervention in the Schiavo affair. And by the way, as Klein now righteously attacks the GOP over its stand on Terri Schiavo, it might be remembered that Klein published a column a month after that ABC poll, in which he claimed that Democrats shoul “give careful consideration to what thoughtful conservatives are saying” about the Schiavo case.)

The American Prospect‘s Greg Sargent summed up Klein quite well. “Dropping an obligatory snide generalization—or an outright distortion—about liberal Dems into his columns seems to be an occupational requirement for him these days,” he wrote. “These omissions and distortions are beginning to suggest a pattern which borders, at best, on professional negligence, and at worst, on rank dishonesty.”