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Congressional corruption, illusion and PR: The rush to judgment

By Marion Edwyn Harrison
web posted February 13, 2006

Much of the media, and disproportionately the more liberal media, joins a number of Members of Congress in talking about what sometimes is, and sometimes is said to be, Congressional corruption. The name "Abramoff" in due course may become a synonym for big-league lobbying corruption. Nobody knows the extent to which the gentleman will implicate Senators, Representatives, omnipresent staffs, Federal officials or fellow lobbyists. There is a strong compulsion to spill beans when there may be a corollary between the quantity and quality of beans spilled and the number of years behind bars. Corruption in Washington - as in state governments - is no new phenomenon. As usual, whatever the quantum turns out to be - and it could be horrendous - we can bet it will be minimal compared to the governments of so many nations. Fortunately Americans are not too tolerant of corruption; prosecutors usually do their duty; and the media, however political it often is, publicizes whenever it can.

It might be worth considering a very brief historical perspective based upon three phenomena. Firstly, disclosure: For most of our national history there was no requirement for the reporting of political contributions, gifts to politicians and the like and until the rather late 20th Century no income or asset disclosure requirements. Secondly, communications: They were more basic and unsophisticated than our contemporary Internet - media - telephone ubiquity. Thirdly, wealth: With exceptions, vast personal and corporate wealth was more limited.

Does the foregoing suggest there is no major problem and, hence, no need for remedy? Hardly. However, history, prudence and common sense suggest caution. It may create appealing PR in many states and Congressional districts when the senator or the representative trumpets all manner of "reform" legislation - too often the hasty handiwork of sometimes-pressured Congressional employees who, whether or not bright, usually have had little or no empirical experience in real litigation; in the drafting of complicated legislation or other documents; or in difficult, painstaking and scholarly legislative and jurisprudential research.

The vast array of proposed "reform" legislation already bandied about tests the imagination: Disclosure of numerous types of activity and/or dispersal of money, time limitations upon lobbying activities, restrictions upon former Members of Congress, various dollar limitations, so forth. Some of the "heavier" proposals include gymnasium-usage restrictions, tab-totals on bar bills and, perhaps somewhere, limitations on rounds of golf and maybe tennis serves.

Whether restrictions and requirements are major, minor or both - and perhaps they should be some of both - is not the point. The point is that true reform is not likely to be the product of a rush to judgment. Such a rush almost assuredly would produce more convolution, confusion, complication - and more imaginative minds endeavoring to discern how to pursue their goals, ethical or unethical, lawful or unlawful, without getting caught.

The First Amendment petition rights of the citizenry ("Congress shall make [sic] no law respecting . . . the right of the people . . . to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.") must be protected legislatively or the Federal Judiciary will protect them in a different forum. Notwithstanding the grandstanding of some in Congress and the thoughtful presentations of others, there is no imperative for speed.

Let's first see who, if anybody else, on or off Capitol Hill, is indicted or pleads guilty; if so, for what crime or crimes and with what results, all pursuant to existing law.

Let's also have thoughtful and unhurried investigation, preferably overseen by experienced and skillful lawyers who have litigated (beyond mere local courts) significant cases in the "real world" and who now serve in Congress - e.g., among well-known names (in alphabetical order), a Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), Jon L. Kyl (R-AZ), Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Arlen Specter (R-PA), probably Joseph L. Lieberman (D-CT). One would want to skip those lawyers who have little or no sophisticated legal experience and/or who scarcely can read a question and follow up on simple cross-examination - e.g., a Senator Joseph P. Biden, Jr. (D-DE), Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT).

There also would be pragmatic and objective value in a Presidentially appointed commission, requiring no Senatorial advice and consent and hence independent, comprised of lawyers who have litigated in technical and complicated cases and a handful of academic scholars.

Lobbyists and Capitol Hill folk alike will be cautious for at least a few months before returning to the previously unduly prevailing practices. There is adequate time for thorough and meaningful observation, analysis, research and draftsmanship. The noun "Abramoff" yet may connote more than one meaning.

Marion Edwyn Harrison is President of, and Counsel to, the Free Congress Foundation.

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