Although the big issue in the November elections will be Iraq, the secondary issue will be corruption in government. Many races will hinge on whether or not the public believes that Democrats will end rot at the top.
In a March 2005 article in The New Republic, Robert Reich bemoaned the failure of Democrats to control four essential American stories. Two are myths with hopeful themes, "the triumphant individual" and "the benevolent community." The other two portray powerful images of fear, "the mob at the gates" and "rot at the top." Reich wrote that rot at the top depicts, "the malevolence of powerful elites. It's a tale of corruption, decadence, and irresponsibility in high places - of conspiracy against the common citizen." In recent months, Tom DeLay symbolized GOP rot at the top. Despite his resignation Dems will continue with this theme in the 2006 Congressional campaigns.
For the last decade, Republicans argued that Dems were controlled by influential "cultural elites" lodged in Hollywood, New York, and Berkeley. The GOP convinced millions of ordinary Americans that the elite brand of rot at the top threatened everything they held dear. However, 63 months of Bush World have lessened the hypnotic power of the Republican myth. DeLay's indictment is just one of many indications that Repugs are guilty of "conspiracy against the common citizen."
The 2006 Congressional races are shaping up as a referendum on the way the GOP is doing business in Washington. If there is a Democratic majority in either the House or Senate in 2007, then three things are likely to happen: there will be meaningful ethics reform legislation passed, there will be congressional investigations into subjects like crony contractor corruption, and there will serious challenges to Dubya's expansion of Presidential authority.
The public wants ethics reform in Washington. On February 6-9, the Gallup Poll asked Americans to define the major issues confronting the US. The highest priority response was "the situation in Iraq" at 22 percent and "terrorism" got 9 percent. However, "dissatisfaction with government... corruption" weighed in at 10 percent, closely followed by "ethics...dishonesty; lack of integrity" at 6 percent.
Nonetheless, since super lobbyist Jack Abramoff pled guilty and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors, ethics reform has gone nowhere on Capitol Hill. There are actually two problems that need to be taken care of. The first is the increasing influence of lobbyists. Here, reform means changing the rules about lobbyists, place limits on their attempts to influence legislation. The second problem has to do with Congressional rules, particularly those in the House of Representatives, where the existing rules facilitate abuses of power by the majority party and their lobbyist cronies.
On December 5th, Democratic Representatives David Obey, Barney Frank, David Price, and Tom Allen introduced a reform package that would deal with many of the procedural abuses that came to light in the recent scandals. Their 14-point proposal Amending the Rules of the House to Protect the Integrity of the Institution would put Congressional travel off limits to lobbyists, strengthen fiscal responsibility, curb abuses of power, prevent the use of earmarks to buy votes, end the 2 day Congressional work week, prohibit legislation from being voted on without members having time to familiarize themselves with it, and prevent legislative items from being slipped into conference reports between the House and Senate without a full public vote by the conference committee.
However, despite the public outcry, and the proposed reforms, the House and Senate ethics committees are quiescent. "The House committee is only barely functioning and has yet to launch a single investigation." The House Republican leadership, Speaker Dennis Hastert and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier recently introduced their own "reform proposal" . "In place of outlawing gifts from lobbyists to elected officials, the bill would simply require more frequent disclosure reports by the donors." Across the board, it proposes weaker substitutes for the changes advocated by Democrats.
The Houston Chronicle notes, "A survey by the nonpartisan Center for Public Policy found that federal lobbying disclosure laws are weaker than those in 47 of the 50 states." Despite this disparity House Republicans evidence no interest in tackling meaningful ethics reform.
The same holds true in the Senate where the real lobbying and ethics reform was sidetracked in a tepid bipartisan measure passed on March 30th.
Clearly, Republicans have no interest in meaningful ethics reform. That's why they have handed Democrats both a major issue in the November elections and a golden opportunity to take back the myth of rot at the top.