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Corruption Threatens Republican Control of Congress

One of the most important political developments in America today is the creeping corruption of the Republican Party. Increasingly, there is little meaningful difference between Republicans in Congress and the Democrats they replaced a little over 10 years ago. Unless they clean up their act fast, Republicans are going to suffer major losses in next year’s congressional elections.

There is no question that Democrats had become deeply corrupt during the 40 years after 1954 when they controlled the House of Representatives continuously. Everyone knew it, just as everyone knows the truth of Lord Acton’s famous maxim, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." That is why the House bank scandal involving bounced checks was so politically potent — it personified petty Democratic corruption in a way that average people could relate to.

Republicans pounded the bank scandal mercilessly and promised to overhaul House procedures and operations if they took control in 1994. On the first day of a Republican majority, they promised to have an outside audit of all House finances, to make laws Congress had exempted itself from apply equally to it, to limit committee chairmanships, to eliminate proxy voting and other reforms.

To their credit, they did enact these reforms in January 1995. But it didn’t take long before Republicans were engaging in the same abuses of power that the Democrats had routinely engaged in. Earlier this year, the minority members of the House Rules Committee issued a 147-page report detailing these abuses. The worst are measures that suppress debate and allow the Republican leadership to ram bills through without any real examination of their provisions.

This is one reason why there has been a vast proliferation of pork-barrel projects in recent years. As with Alaska’s infamous "bridge to nowhere," Republican leaders know that such blatantly unjustified spending cannot survive open debate and must be sneaked through under subterfuge if it is to be enacted.

One abuse that particularly bothers me is routinely holding open votes far beyond the normal time period, so that Republican leaders can twist arms to force principled conservatives to back big spending measures. The worst example was the three-hour vote in 2003 that gave us the Medicare drug monstrosity. But just a few weeks ago, it was done again when the leadership held a five-minute vote open for 45 minutes to bludgeon an energy bill through.

Although few Republicans will speak on the record about such abuses for fear of retaliation, it is a growing topic of private conversation. Earlier this year, The Washington Post quoted one leadership aide as lamenting, "It took Democrats 40 years to get as arrogant as we have become in 10."

It was only a matter of time before the petty abuse of power morphed into actual corruption. That is the significance of the growing scandal involving lobbyists Jack Abramoff, Mike Scanlon and others. Last week, Scanlon pleaded guilty to defrauding Indian tribes who had paid Abramoff and Scanlon to lobby for their gambling interests in Congress.

In another instance, Abramoff funneled money through a think tank to pay for a lavish golfing vacation in Scotland for then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio. Sadly, it has been my observation that other so-called think tanks have also abused their tax-exempt status to pursue political agendas and personal profits for their executives.

I believe that the root of the current wave of scandal involving Republicans is that the party’s governing element in Washington has completely lost sight of the reason they were elected in the first place. Grass-roots Republicans support the party because it is the party of small government. Those who like big government, who always want Washington to do more and take on more responsibility, vote Democratic.

So when Republicans begin to ape the Democrats by proposing endless pork-barrel projects and lavish new drug benefits for the elderly, while not even pretending to care about the budget deficit, it makes rank-and-file Republicans wonder why they should remain in a party that has little meaningful difference from the Democrats. Many are going to stay home on Election Day next year, I predict.

When Republicans no longer stand for any sort of principle, it becomes a simple matter to use power just to reward your friends or those with connections. Things like the Abramoff scandal are the logical consequence. A renewed commitment to principle is the best antidote.

In the words of conservative New York Post columnist John Podhoretz: "As is often the case when reformers take the reins of power, they’ve become mirror images of those they replaced. They’ve grown especially interested in rewarding their friends, punishing their enemies and using government power for their own narrow partisan ends."

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Mr. Bartlett is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy."

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