The ethics truce and the K Street Machine

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men.

A reader reminds me that I used the term “ethics truce” without explaining it, and asserted that the Abramoff matter is a huge scandal without arguing for it.

The “ethics truce” is the agreement made between the two parties in the House of Representatives not to file ethics complaints against each other.

Abramoff wasn’t just a lobbyist, though that’s how he’s being described. And the claim in the indictment that he defrauded his clients by overbilling them isn’t really right substantively, though no doubt the bills were padded.

As Josh Marshall has been insisting for months now, Abramoff was in the business of generating not only campaign contributions — legal, as long as there isn’t an explicit quid pro quo in the way of specific official actions in return — but also slush funds, largely in the form of phony charities, to be used for the personal benefit of Republican Members and staffers and for a variety of party purposes, such as buying “independent” campaign ads, financing voter-suppression activities, pushing the Texas gerrymander, and so on. Abramoff (with Norquist) constituted the bridge between the worlds of business and lobbying on the one hand and the national Republican machine on the other. If Tom DeLay was Mr. Inside, Abramoff and Norquist were Messrs. Outside.

(Kevin Drum has good background reading on this: a recent piece from the LA Times, Tom Edsall’s brilliant story (soon to be a book) form a year ago, and Nick Confessore’s “Wecome to the K Machine” from 2003.

And, as Josh points out today, the result has been an extraordinary level of party discipline, especially in the House.

So treating the current scandal as somehow on the same level as Abscam, or the House Post Office, or Jim Wright’s book deal, is wrong by orders of magnitude. This is true Gilded-Age corruption, when Mark Hanna was in charge of gathering the corporate money and “Czar” Reed (succeeded by “Uncle Joe” Cannon) ran the House with an iron hand. The big difference is that, back then, the period of greatest Congressional corruption ended with Norris’s progressive revolt of 1910, while the maximum of Executive-Branch corruption didn’t occur until the Harding Administration (e.g., Teapot Dome). Now, of course, we have the coincidence of the crookedest Congress in history with the crookedest administration in history (so far).

That’s what makes the “ethics truce” such an abomination: in order to proect a few colleagues from potential blowback, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership in the House are virtually complicit in all of this. It’s as if, as Kevin remarked a couple of days ago, the Democrats are anxious about any threat to their status as the minority party.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox put it better than I could:

To sin by silence, when we should protest,

Makes cowards out of men. The human race

Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised

Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,

The inquisition yet would serve the law,

And guillotines decide our least disputes.

The few who dare, must speak and speak again

To right the wrongs of many.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com