Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 19, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

CORRUPTION WATCH....Here are three responses from the national media to Wednesday's Democratic plan to fight congressional corruption:

  • Washington Post: "Democratic leaders from the House and Senate endorsed proposals that closely mirror Republican plans unveiled this week...."

  • Knight Ridder: "The Democratic plan resembles the reform agenda unveiled by Republicans the day before...."

  • Los Angeles Times: "But a crucial question remains: whether either party's plans would alter the close relationship between the capital's lobbyists and lawmakers."

Not every newspaper played it this way, but enough did to convince me that the Dem plan was simply too mushy to make much of an impact, even if the presentation and delivery were better than usual for these kinds of things.

That's too bad. As the latest Hotline poll shows, public awareness of Jack Abramoff is rising (nearly half have heard of him), as is awareness that he's a Republican operative. What's more, although independent voters mostly think corruption is a problem for both parties, a significant number don't and of those, nearly all associate it more with Republicans than Democrats.

So there's a real opportunity here. A more dramatic proposal on Wednesday could have done a better job of taking advantage of that.

Kevin Drum 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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'nuf said.

Posted by: koreyel on January 19, 2006 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

how about the same proposal, but just released BEFORE the repubs. there was no real good reason for them to come in second in this race. well, excepting their usual strategic bumbling.

Posted by: passing thru on January 19, 2006 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

So there's a real opportunity here.

based on past performance, there's every reason to expect this opportunity to be lost.

Posted by: cleek on January 19, 2006 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

I think no program would have been a better strategy. What the republicans are doing is already illegal. What's needed is an actual ethics committee that provides oversight under the law. The most effective line has been Reid's statement that comparing republicans to the Mafia. Getting into arcane discussions about what constitutes a bribe feeds the everybody does it meme.

Posted by: JayAckroyd on January 19, 2006 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

What's more, although independent voters mostly think corruption is a problem for both parties

That's because Democrats are very corrupt. As the liberal Washington Post pointed out today


"Abramoff picked up part of the tab for two Democrats, Reps. James E. Clyburn (S.C.) and Bennie Thompson (Miss.), on a trip to the Northern Mariana Islands in the mid-1990s, officially sponsored by the nonprofit American Security Council. Clyburn, now chairman of the Democratic Caucus, was recently named to the House Democrats' "clean team," tasked with leading the ethics-reform push."

"But a Democrat, Rep. William J. Jefferson (La.), is under a similar cloud. Last week, Brett M. Pfeffer, a former Jefferson aide, pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Jefferson, who, in exchange for his support, allegedly demanded a 5 to 7 percent stake in one of two West African Internet and cable television companies that Pfeffer's firm was investing in."

Democrats have a hard time convincing people they can get rid of corruption in Washington because they are as corrupt as anyone.

Posted by: Al on January 19, 2006 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

Meanwhile, here's how it played on the BBC:

"The Democratic Party in the US has launched a scathing attack on what it calls a culture of corruption created by the country's Republican Party."


Sounds great. Now if only we could borrow some well-informed British citizens to vote over here in Novemeber, we're set.

Posted by: Violet on January 19, 2006 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

This is just too easy. Both parties want to sound like they are reforming right. What we need to do is get them in a bidding war. The Democrats have a few features that the Republicans don't have concerning earmarks and open conferences. We should be goading the Republicans to match the Democrats. When they do that we should goade the Democrats into raising the bar. Pretty soon we will get a real reform package.

Posted by: Ron Byers on January 19, 2006 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

I'm guessing that the Democratic proposal resembles the Republican one because it's pretty obvious all around what the most important things to change are.

What Democrats CAN'T be suckered into is the idea that proposed reforms have anything to do with the underlying problem, which is the corrupt and illegal conduct of the Republicans under the K Street project. You stop such illegal activity by rounding up those engaged in it and throwing them in jail, and tossing out their associates from positions of power where they might do more harm. Setting up new laws and regulations mean nothing when you're dealing with criminals.

The point is, first, and foremost, you get rid of the bad people, the criminal element and their cronies. There's no reform possible if you don't do that first. That MUST be the most important message Democrats get across.

Posted by: frankly0 on January 19, 2006 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

Not only did the Dems not come out with their plan first, but they announced about a week ahead of time exactly when they were going to release their plan. How stupid was that? Not only letting the Republicans beat them to punch, but telling them when they were going to punch so the Republicans could punch first.

Posted by: Rick on January 19, 2006 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

It's pretty disheartening. The Democrats don't want to reform the system anymore than Republicans. They've earned their pathetic standing.

Posted by: quatro on January 19, 2006 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

Really, setting up a "reform" package just gives the Republicans new laws to break, which they have gladly done already.

How on earth is that going to improve anything?

It's like the old joke, "Stop, or I'll yell 'Stop' again!"

Posted by: frankly0 on January 19, 2006 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

Forgive my Southern CAL bias, but my hometown paper (LATimes) had the best line - suggesting NEITHER plan will do much good. Exactly right. But then would any new rules written by the corrupts one be effective in controlling the corrupt ones as long as they stay in office. New rules are needed as new political leaders.

Posted by: pgl on January 19, 2006 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

If you honestly want to face one of the most intractable problems facing the Dems on this issue, its the double standard (benign neglect?) in its treatment of the Congressional Black Caucus. If you start with Alcee Hastings (an impeached bribe taker) and work your way north and west their finances and ethics are on the par with Duke Cunningham.

Posted by: wks on January 19, 2006 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

Here's the message that the Dems need to drive home: The problem is not the rules, it's the Republicans.

Delay didn't get indicted because the system is broken (which is a different issue). He was indicted because he (allegedly) broke the law.

Abramoff, ditto.

Posted by: JJF on January 19, 2006 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with JJF, they are using misdirection to pretend that they didn't do anyhting wrong, that the system is broken so its ok. But they did do something wrong and thats why Jack is getting into trouble.

Posted by: Jeremy on January 19, 2006 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

I think Jeffrey Feldman has it 100% right:


We have to talk about the crime and punishment before we can address reform.

Posted by: Cally on January 19, 2006 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

Whack the snake at the head, and the rest will take care of it's self. Changing rules that are already being broken don't fix anything!

Posted by: Grouchy Cowboy on January 19, 2006 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

The dems already blew the opportunity by allowing repubs to beat them to it. No matter what they did, the media was going to make it look like the dems are merely aping GOP efforts. It's ridiculous. These ethical scandals have been boiling for months and dems wait until know to unvail a reform plan?

I'd say they deserve to lose, but it's us voters who are the real losers.

Posted by: MeLoseBrain? on January 19, 2006 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

It would be cool to do something drastic, like announce support for the begala/carville firebomb-everything strategy. I know democrats want a piece of the money too, and that's too bad, but presumably putting out a radical reform agenda can only help you with the voters. What are the republicans going to argue, that it "goes too far"? Yeah, that'd play real well.

Presumably such a plan wouldn't have much chance of passing. But getting yourself on record supporting such a big step would probably put democrats in a good place in the voters' minds.

Posted by: mk on January 19, 2006 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

Let's see either party support the 72-hour sunshine proposal before a bill vote. See:


Posted by: Stygius on January 19, 2006 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

Doesn't help when World News Tonight on ABC has their newsreader suggest that the two plans are being presented because "both sides" do the dirty deed. This happened last night.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on January 19, 2006 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

But look no one reads newspapers except for the headlines, and do you know what the headline was on that Washington Post story last night?


That was just awesome. This combined with the Medicare fiasco (yet another example, as pointed out by Kevin, of Republican inability to actually govern the country) will hopefully make more people wake up to the fact that we are heading right for a cataclysm due to Republican evil-doers.

Posted by: reader on January 19, 2006 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe I'm missing something but I thought the plans were quite different. The Republicans put in a loophole that any kind of gift or trip etc. is OK as long as it accompanies a campaign contribution. Democrats put in requirements that disallow earmarks, that conference committees resolving differences between House and Senate versions meet in open session and that all members be allowed to attend and to vote, not just Dems or Repubs. If true this sounds like a major difference to me.

Posted by: JohnK on January 19, 2006 at 3:05 PM | PERMALINK

Granted that i'm a small sample of one, but here's one so-called "independent" (actually Libertarian) voter who thinks the following about Congress:

  • The system is thoroughly corrupt.
  • To succeed in the system, both Republican and Democrat legislators have a fairly high level of corruption
  • All that aside, this present crop of Republicans has pretty much set the standard for future generations to measure just how putrid the cesspool can get.

Just my point of view, FWIW -- but I get the sense some of my fellow Libs agree.

Posted by: EqualOpportunityCynic on January 19, 2006 at 3:12 PM | PERMALINK

I wonder even if they had presented a more dramatic plan that likely had many of the same elements if the press would have written much the same thing?

Posted by: ET on January 19, 2006 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK


To say nothing of Ried last night on The News Hour
sounding very republican

"I don't know Jack Abrahmoff"

"I am not going to return the casino money"

instead, why not say things that Clinton would say,
you know, the things that are logical.


Jack A. is a REPUBLICAN, how much money do you suppose
republicans normally give to powerless Democrats every year?

Republicans are in sole power of washington.
They have the influence to sell.
We don't chair anything.



Posted by: wellstoner on January 19, 2006 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

It looks some Dems are taking a different approach... they are proposing to offer Bible study classes in public schools.

Posted by: Freedom Fighter on January 19, 2006 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

Until one of the parties is willing to step away from the money for favor policies of the congress, nothing will not change. Heck, the people required to change the system are the ones who benefit from it. Why change something that allows them to raise a ton of money so they can beat down anyone who thinks of running against them? (Could that be why only millionaires seem to run for congress now?) Congress has taken care of itself rather well. They make good money, have a great retirement and super health insurance. They travel to wonderful places, eat at great restaurants and see the sights of the world on our dime or the dime of their financial supporters. Does anyone actually think that they are going to kill the golden goose which allows them to live like royalty? No WAY!

Posted by: AZBob on January 19, 2006 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

Why do Democrats only run ads during campaigns? How about running a consistant two week campaign pointing out Republican corruption and Bush's illegal spying?

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Posted by: Voyeurism on January 19, 2006 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

I'm curious if the poster here actually read the Democratic proposal--fromt he looks of the knee-jerk responses, I don't think many have.

The devil is usually in the details, but there is some genuinely good stuff. I'm particularly happy to see a requirement that the text of all legislation being voted on is made public at least 24 hours prior to any votes. That and the fact that congresspeople can't accept anything from lobbyists. The two plans differ strikingly here. The GOP plan lets you go golfing in Scotland if you call it a "fundraiser".

In re Now if only we could borrow some well-informed British citizens to vote over here in Novemeber, we're set. I'd settle for some respectable journalism. Focusing on Democrats sins compared to those of the GOP/Abramoff is like focusing on a paper cut compared to bullet that went through your chest. Unless there are some startling new developments implicating Dems, there is really no comparison or reason to compare.

Posted by: gq on January 19, 2006 at 4:00 PM | PERMALINK

The Democrats missed the deadline in their plan and reinforced the wrong narrative.

My strong preference: emphasize the Medicare disaster. It's hot, it's real, and seniors vote. And it's going to get worse as seniors hit that "bubble".

Second, emphasize enforcement. Don't say reform - say enforce the rules you got now.

BTW - also have to say that generally Reid gets these right. Let's not harp too much on the misses.

Posted by: Samuel Knight on January 19, 2006 at 4:01 PM | PERMALINK

The recent performance by Senate Democrats during the Alito hearings should make it clear beyond all cavil that we Dems are in a world of hurt. A third-year law student could have had a field day with Alito; instead, we got pontifications and an unwillingness to ask folowup questions that might actually have staked Alito out. It was miserable to watch, and confirms that Dem "leadership" is little more than sound and fury, signifying nothing.

In light of the Alito debacle, is it any wonder that Reid and the rest have no coherent message on the culture of corruption and the means to clean it up? A disheartening prelude to the mid-terms.

Posted by: Ghost of Hamilton on January 19, 2006 at 4:08 PM | PERMALINK

The real Democratic plan for reform should be simple: voters vote out every last one of those filthy Republican criminals from office.

Posted by: isledbynone on January 19, 2006 at 4:27 PM | PERMALINK

The dems don't need a 'dramatic proposal.' They need to congratulate the federal prosecutors on going after criminal enterprise in politics. It appears that the current rules are good enough...

Bribery and extortion are already illegal!

Posted by: mac on January 19, 2006 at 4:35 PM | PERMALINK

Why do we really need lobbyists anyway? All they have become is bribers. People who pay our legislators to give our hard earned tax dollars to rich people, so they can become more rich and powerfull! Then there are the lobbyists who have to get money from the taxpayers who must fight against the other lobbyists from doing harm against the middle class or the enviroment. It's a system that takes and takes and takes money from THE LOWER 80% OF US TO SUPPORT THE UPPER 20%!!!
What are they SUPPOSED to be REALLY doing? Informing congress to see a particular side of an issue.
WHAT I propose is when an issue is raised or someone introduces a bill is this
1. informed citizens, or a person representing a company, comes before congress and TAKES AN OATH.
2.The congress ( all of them) afterall that's what we're paying them for) should question them . Let them take a couple of days or weeks to do this.
3. In the meantime staff members can do fact checking and help their congressional reprensentative or senator.
4.They'll use the facts to debate the bill before voting.
There should be no need for lobbying firms...This may seem simple, but there is no other way to reform ...lowering money given to congress? Bull...t, there should be no money or gifts given period! You're are supposed to be a PUBLIC servant...not a private one!

Posted by: grammy on January 19, 2006 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK


Let's see either party support the 72-hour sunshine proposal before a bill vote.

Not a bad idea, although the Thomas website has pretty good access to legislation.

Here's something to add to that idea: make every politician pass a quiz on a piece of legislation before he gets to vote on it.

As for reforms, new laws, and all the rest of that useless crap:

Not one damn thing in the world keeps any particular politician from refusing to be corrupt. You want reform, Senator? You want reform Congressman? How about this? Don't take the bribes!

The motivation for calls for reform right now is not to actually reform congress, but to try and impress voters in an election year that Something Is Being Done. The net effect will be the same as the dozens of "reforms" in the past. Zilch.

Posted by: tbrosz on January 19, 2006 at 4:55 PM | PERMALINK

BTW, you might sell people on Abramoff being a Republican issue, but you're not going to sell anyone with a brain, or anyone over thirty years old, on the idea that only Republicans have been corrupt in this country.

If Democrats ran the House and Senate, some analog of Abramoff would have been doing the same thing for Democrats. Money, and the corruption, follow the power.

Posted by: tbrosz on January 19, 2006 at 5:02 PM | PERMALINK

Naturally, we can count on tbrosz to fall back on the standard cynical conservative excuses for conservative corruption, which involve shrugging and saying, "see, we told you the government is inefficient" and washing their hands of it.

True, these are election year reforms designed to convince voters that Something Is Being Done. It's also true that it won't take long for the bagmen to start wriggling through the inevitable loopholes. But it's simply a lie to claim that past reforms have had zero effect. We're already a long way from the days of unlimited donations and no disclosure requirements when Nixon stashed corporate cash under his mattress.

Rooting out corruption is like national defense. You can't just write a law and be done with it. It requires constant vigilance and perpetual system upgrades. And it's worth the trouble.

Unfortunately, the only check on Congress is their desire to make voters think they're doing something useful. But the same could be said about every issue. That's democracy.

Posted by: Violet on January 19, 2006 at 5:22 PM | PERMALINK

BTW, you might sell people on Abramoff being a Republican issue, but you're not going to sell anyone with a brain, or anyone over thirty years old, on the idea that only Republicans have been corrupt in this country.

Well, Abramoff is a Republican issue, so the scandal is that it has to be sold that way at all. The second part of your statement is true, but so pointless that it is a waste of internet bandwidth.

Posted by: tbonz on January 19, 2006 at 5:27 PM | PERMALINK

Violet at 5:22: Excellent post.

tbrosz: You are the most un-self-aware person I have ever met. And I meet a lot of people.

Posted by: shortstop on January 19, 2006 at 6:13 PM | PERMALINK

I watched Harry Reid on the PBS NewHour last night.

Maybe he's a good majority leader and/or strategist but he is not a good communicator with the public. Because I kind of keep up with this stuff I understood what he was trying to say but still had a hard time following him.

Democrats need to put some people up front who speak regular American instead of DCspeak.



Posted by: Emma Zahn on January 19, 2006 at 6:16 PM | PERMALINK

Democrats be BOLD:
Form and consult outside, non-partisan group (retired judges, academics, community leaders, etc.) and make meetings and findings public
State specific enforcement methods such as fines, censure, dismissal from congress
Campaign finance reform
Earmarks out
5 year revolving door for staff and members to join lobby firms, no consulting in interim
Ban lobby gifts and travel (including fund raisers)
Set up Truman like committee to investigate military contracts
Complete review of qualifications of Presidential appointments that must be approved by Congress

Posted by: Jeanne on January 19, 2006 at 6:42 PM | PERMALINK

You expect courageous leadership from Harry Reid????

Posted by: GOPGregory on January 19, 2006 at 6:47 PM | PERMALINK

What Reid SHOULD have said is "It's impossible to reform Congress with the GOP in charge, since they all act like their leader George Bush and ignore laws that they find personally inconvenient. If you want change in America, vote Democrat". Then he should have turned to the camera, held up a fistfull of cash ganster rapper style, and offered to pay Wolf Blitzer $1,000 out of his own pocket for every Democrat indicted by Patrick Fitzgerald or the Abramoff prosecutor.

People would have been talking about that for WEEKS. No, MONTHS.

Posted by: Alderaan on January 19, 2006 at 7:06 PM | PERMALINK

The lead Editorial in the USA Today showed a picture of Dennis Hastert with David Dried in one caption and next to it a picture of Harry Reid with Nancy Pelosi. Under it they listed the favors each has accepted.

This is why 80% think both sides are equally guilty and it's not going to change much. Democrats would do much better if they could agree on what they stood for and then sold that. 1994 wasn't about Democratic corruption. It was about the Contract with America.

Posted by: rdw on January 19, 2006 at 7:33 PM | PERMALINK

tbrosz: you might sell people on Abramoff being a Republican issue, but you're not going to sell anyone with a brain, or anyone over thirty years old, on the idea that only Republicans have been corrupt in this country. (emphasis added)

You love that straw man so much, do you take it to bed with you at night? Sheesh!

Shame on you for continuing to carry water for the GOP despite its corruption.

Posted by: Gregory on January 19, 2006 at 9:07 PM | PERMALINK

Emphasis apparently not added. "the idea that only Republicans have been corrupt in this country" should have been bold. Apologies.

Posted by: Gregory on January 19, 2006 at 9:09 PM | PERMALINK

Geez, you're judging the Democratic plan by the MSM responses to it? No wonder you don't think it's good--at least try reading it and judging for yourself, Mr. Policy Wonk.

Posted by: Ringo on January 19, 2006 at 11:07 PM | PERMALINK

A level of corruption next to which teapot dome and the carpetbaggers of reconstruction pale in comparison and the best that the GOP can come up with as a defense is to point to the piddling change the dems get and cry, "they do it, too."
I suppose if tbrosz's child stole his wallet and overran his credit card and then pointed out that a sibling had taken a quarter that had been left on top of the TV he would punish them equally.

Posted by: joe on January 20, 2006 at 12:42 AM | PERMALINK

"Shame on you for continuing to carry water for the GOP despite its corruption."
Posted by: Gregory

I don't read that as carrying water for the GOP. I read that as (what I believe to be) truth. The whole goddamn gov't is corrupt. Including but not limited to state and locals.

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