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110th Congress: Same Game, Same Tune

The new Congress came to Washington in January to really change the way the Legislative branch does business. An all out assault on “President Bush and Dick Cheney’s War” was to be the first level of attack, followed closely by the closing of all the loop-holes that allow for agents of special interest groups to curry special favor with lawmakers.

Yes, that was the major trouble with the 109th Congress and by golly it was going to be corrected! The new Congress headed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) were ready to put themselves on the line for a resistance of real substance and fortitude to the on-going war in Iraq. Equally, the issue of corruption within the Congress needed to be addressed. It was absolutely time to put an end to lobbyist-paid breakfasts, lunches, dinners and junkets where legislators went on supposed “fact-finding” trips funded in reality by major U.S., and sometimes even foreign corporations.

No more. No more. This was to be a new beginning in every way. But something happened on the road to clean ethics and austerity. First, of course, it is almost presidential election time again. While it is very fashionable to be against the mid-East conflicts, there is the little matter of polls and how the American people really feel about any abandonment of the U.S. troops stationed and fighting in the Iraqi and Afghanistan theaters. Apparently, the legislators woke up enough to notice that while it looks good to be against the war, it looks bad to be short-changing the military. Especially with a lot of the Congress already plotting a run at the presidency themselves.

Thus the teeth of the resolution to bring the war to an end immediately fell out of the double-speaking mouths of the most “liberal” members of Congress. The mandate that the majority party suggested had been received loud and clear by them at the November polls from the American people needed to be softened a bit. No sense in really committing to something with substance. The best thing to do was simply to offer a “non-binding” resolution to be against President Bush’s decision to send approximately 21,000 additional troops to Iraq.

The House of Representatives was able to get this watered down inconsequential piece of nonsense through its own body, but it was blocked, albeit only by a vote, in the Senate. Of course, even if it had passed it would not have meant anything except that the majority could then say that they were on record now as opposing any further conflict, while actually sanctioning those conflicts to continue unabated, as well they should.

Meanwhile, back to the issue of lobbyists unduly influencing the Legislative Branch: It was high time to get rid of that problem once and for all. Indeed new rules were implemented by the law-makers themselves to bar lobbyists from directly buying them meals or trips. But apparently very few Representatives or Senators, in either house and in either party really wanted to stop the fun. Direct might be “out,” but indirect is most certainly “in.”

Instead of picking up the legislator’s tab directly, lobbyists pay into a political fundraising committee that has been specially set up by the lawmaker. Then it is that committee that legally turns around and pays the legislator, not only for his time and expenses but also then keeping all the rest of the money “raised” supposedly for future use in campaigns. Very often it is the lobbyist that “buys” the whole event.

Thus, instead of eliminating a problem, Congress has actually paved the way for larger and more lavish functions to be catered and paid for by the lobbyists while enriching their campaign treasuries and sometimes their own individual pockets as well. Yes, some in Congress have been known to pad an expense or two.

In just the past two months, the New York Times has found that lawmakers invited lobbyists to help pay for a “catalog of outings,” such as birthday parties in a lawmaker’s honor, a California wine-tasting tour, hunting and fishing trips, weekend golf tournaments, rock concerts, etc. Each of these events cost anywhere between $1,000 and $25,000 a ticket.

On the surface, there is nothing much new in these practices. In one form or another, these scenarios have been going on for decades. Congressmen point out that they have little choice but to raise money to pay for and run election campaigns. There is, after-all, no public funding available for running for federal office, short of the presidency. But the funds that are directed to these special PAC’s are no going just to fund campaigns. Over the last couple of years, the New York Times found that the roughly 300 now existing PAC’s controlled by legislators raised a total of about $156 million, but used only a third of that on federal campaign contributions to help themselves and their fellow legislators get re-elected. Of the rest of the funds, apparently they are mainly used to pay for travel and other “miscellaneous” expenses of the lawmaker running the PAC.

So the “new” Congress is really no different than the last in terms of its individual spending habits, its ability to look the other way while steadfastly insisting that they are a more “ethical” lot, and in terms of watering down its own heart-felt resolutions when it realizes that a mixed response is much smarter for getting re-elected than simply having a strong point of view.

The real hypocrisy lies not in the end results, it is in the insincerity which accompanies the initial lofty platitudes issued from the Congress which knows full well that it is one thing to preach, but quite another to practice the reality of the sermon.

And the Bacchus celebrations on Capitol Hill continue…while Rome (read: America) burns.

Written By

Mr. Weinberger is the son of the late U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. A 1968 graduate of Harvard College, Weinberger is a writer and lecturer on world events. A former television writer, producer and director for NBC affiliate KRON-TV in San Francisco, he served in both California Gov. and President Ronald Reagan's administrations. He now resides in Maine.

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