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Dreier's dilemma

January 10, 2006

GOP LEADERS IN CONGRESS must have had quite a weekend devising a crash program to corral the scandal spreading from lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The announcement Sunday that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert would give the job to Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) had a slapdash feel, with Dreier hastily flying back to Washington from California. He takes charge of a legislative effort low on specifics but intended, in Dreier's words, to "deal with this issue and get it behind us as quickly as possible."

The influence-peddling scandal has been building for months despite efforts to dismiss it as a media-generated spite-fest. Last week, the dam broke. Abramoff struck a plea deal with prosecutors, sending legislators into a frenzy to return or give away contributions from him and his clients. And Abramoff buddy Tom DeLay of Texas said he would not, after all, seek to regain his post as House majority leader once he has dealt with that pesky Texas criminal indictment. DeLay could no longer plausibly dismiss criminal charges as partisan attacks by spiteful prosecutors or credibly deny the taint of Abramoff's luxury golf trips, skybox tickets and lavish contributions.

Dreier is really in a pickle. There is no fast way to get rid of the scandal, and no stomach in the House leadership for legislation that would close the profitable revolving door between legislative offices and the lobbying industry. DeLay's own "K Street Project" (named after the D.C. location favored by lobbyists) demanded that firms purge themselves of Democrats and focus on helping Republicans. Predictably, lobbyists rushed to hire GOP legislative aides and former officeholders. The project is one reason the lobbying scandal isn't very bipartisan.

If Dreier and Hastert were serious, they would take as a starting point a bill by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to open the lobbying industry's doings to public scrutiny and to choke off the flow of favors (which in other cultures would be known as bribes). The bill isn't perfect, but it has teeth and has already been introduced in the Senate. Why start over, except in the name of doing less damage to the lobbying trough?

Dreier has his own problems. His 2004 reelection race was a relative squeaker for an incumbent, largely because of sniping from the right that he was soft on immigration and social issues. He has since hewed to a more predictably conservative line. Despite the makeover, he may still face a tough fight this year and will need lots of party money -- controlled by the leadership and funded by industry and social-conservative lobbies.

Abramoff's golf trips have helped put influence-peddling in a context that every voter can understand. But compared to the entanglements of campaign funding, they are puny. And as a practical matter, House members like Dreier have to get themselves reelected every two years.

If the main aim of the party in power is to stay in power, it can't choke off the flow of lobbyists' millions. That's why Dreier's call to "get this behind us" sounds more like a yearning for damage control than an awakening of conscience.

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