Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Two Weeks Away? So, What’s New?

I and my wife have just spent two weeks in Italy without a newspaper in sight and, more importantly, no desire to see one and no burning thirst to know what’s happened in each and every twenty-four hours of our time away.


So, I’m home and scanning the Washington Post and the thing that seems most necessary, top priority in fact, is to find out what Doonesbury has been up to for the past sixteen days and, because it’s the online edition, I can look.  And I do. The Tokyo Stock Exchange closed itself down, due to a landslide of sell orders it couldn’t electronically keep up with, the Senate has postponed a committee decision on Samuel Alito and the Congress is falling all over itself to sound like it’s serious about clipping the wings of lobbyists, but it’s Doonesbury I take the time to march through, day by day, all sixteen of them.


That either says something about Doonesbury or something about me, I’m not sure which.


But the congressional posturing on lobby money and rules, post Abramoff and pre mid-term elections, is such a Garry Trudeau moment that I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t take a swing at it pretty quickly.


DennishastertA plan outlined by the Speaker of the House, one Dennis Hastert (two heartbeats away from president), will boldly go where no legislator has gone before and specifically ban meals and privately paid-for travel by Congressmen and Senators. It's about time. That oughta fix 'em.


Except. Except? Yes, except for when the lobbyist also hands out a campaign contribution to the legislator in question. Then only the best restaurants are good enough and the priciest foreign and domestic tours qualify.


So, let me get this straight. If a lobbyist wants to take Hastert to dinner, even a Big Mac is off limits unless he gives him a campaign contribution at the same time and then it’s legal to stuff the Speaker until he can’t speak on Kobe beef and champagne. Similarly, flying Dennis to Peoria on the company plane is a no-no, unless a campaign contribution is included and then a week in the south of France is business as usual, studying up on pate de foie gras for his Illinois goose farmers.


Talk about being goosed.


Anyway, there are three basic rules about what lobbyists can and cannot do in their quest to bribe lawmakers. One has to do with what a ‘gift’ is and Senators and Congressmen are falling all over one another to get strict on that. The second has to do with how lobbyists report their bribery and the same above-mentioned suspects are working overtime to tighten up on that. The third leg of this sturdy stool upon which the lawmakers sidle up to the trough is campaign finance regulation and nothing is suggested in this area.


But nothing doing doesn’t mean nothing will be done.


The lunches, dinners, partying and good times will now ascribe to campaign contributions instead of lobbyist bribes and if a lawmaker can be booked into a week of shooting driven birds in the Scottish highlands, well . . . one must keep up with what’s going on in foreign lands.


Another nifty aspect of ‘contributions’ to election campaigns is that whatever is left over after the election legally belongs to the candidate. Congress, in it’s wisdom, made just such a law. Convenient, huh? You didn't expect them to give it back? Makes your and my 401-K pale by comparison and it's a lively incentive for any last-election candidate to do a little creative voting before he retires.


Hastert and his partners-in-crime will bellow and bray about closing ‘loopholes’ and tightening ‘restrictions’ until the furor caused by Jack Abramoff and the money he has spread has died down. The Speaker sincerely hopes that the national attention span is shorter than this fall’s mid-term elections. But if it's not, blood will be let as the voters think necessary and the game will go on.


In the Congress and the Senate, blood has never been thicker than money.
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