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The Wall Street Journal published an editorial on Friday about the legal woes of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and what it means for the Republicans in Congress:
This week’s plea agreement by “super-lobbyist” Jack Abramoff has Republicans either rushing to return his campaign contributions in an act of cosmetic distancing, accuse Democrats of being equally corrupt, or embrace some new “lobbying reform” that would further insulate Members of Congress from political accountability.
Here’s a better strategy: Banish the Abramoff crowd from polite Republican society, and start remembering why you were elected in the first place.
What’s notable so far about this scandal is the wretchedness of the excess on display, as well as the fact that it involves self-styled “conservatives,” who claimed to want to clean up Washington instead of cleaning up themselves. That some Republicans are just as corruptible as some Democrats won’t surprise students of human nature. But it is an insult to the conservative voters who elected this class of Republicans and expected better.
In 1994, when the Republicans took over the House of Representatives for the first time in a half-century, their victory was based in equal parts on voter anguish over the first two years of the Clinton Administration and on voter disgust with a series of scandals involving the Democratic leadership in Congress.
After two years, before one of his many comebacks, President Clinton looked like a lame duck, especially after his bid to put 17% of the economy—the healthcare sector—under the control of the federal government. Voters who feared a healthcare system with the efficiency of the Post Office and the compassion of the IRS may have wanted to check President Clinton’s power by putting the opposing party in charge of Congress.
The Democrats running the House made that easy for voters to do. First there was the House Bank, where congressmen could freely float bad checks on negative-balance accounts on a scale that would send private citizens to jail. Then there was the House Post Office, where congressmen could get free mailing vouchers and postage stamps (supposedly) for mailings to constituents, and then sell the postage to pocket the money. Dealing in postage stamps may sound like a pittance, when you consider that congressmen have many thousands of constituents, it becomes clear that there’s money to be made in stamp laundering.
The Republicans campaigned to bring their philosophy of limited government to Washington and pledged to clean House, literally. And they did, for a while, but certain principles seemed to disappear. (Whatever happened to the idea of term limits? Oh yeah, bad for incumbents, so let’s forget about that.) Being in power has a way of providing incentives to remain in power. Being in power also tends to give certain advantages that make it possible to remain in power. And now that the Republican Party has controlled Congress for over a decade, it seems that they have morphed from the party of limited government into the party of, simply, government.
The Journal editorial continues:
More broadly, however, the Abramoff scandal wouldn’t resonate nearly as much with the public if it didn’t fit a GOP pattern of becoming cozy with Beltway mores. The party that swept to power on term limits, spending restraint and reform has become the party of incumbency, 6,371 highway-bill “earmarks,” and K Street. And it’s no defense to say that Democrats would do the same. Of course Democrats would, but then they’ve always claimed to be the party of government. If that’s what voters want, they’ll choose the real thing.
One problem with big government is, the larger government gets, the more it manages the economy, the more incentive it creates for corruption. For example, Jack Abramoff was a Washington power broker for, among other things, Indian casino concerns. But the reason he had power in Washington wasn’t because casinos have a lot of money, it’s because casinos have a lot of money and are subject to the regulatory whims of government.
Because government regulates gambling, the market for gambling becomes constricted. If you want to gamble, you can go to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, a few other localities, or to an Indian reservation. The entire nationwide demand for gambling therefore becomes funneled into an artificially small number of markets. Those markets, in turn, collect artificially huge amounts of revenue. Some of that revenue, we now know, was sent to Washington to try to get the government to manipulate the industry in a way that would favor some players and disfavor others.
Like all businesses, casinos would love it if they could shield themselves from competition. Government provides them with a mechanism to do that. Money is just the way to get government to operate that mechanism to their advantage.
Since government regulation is what prevents competition in the gambling market, regulation is therefore the reason that casinos spend money to influence government. In other words, the very existence of big government itself is what creates the environment that encourages corruption. If you get government out of a given market, you’ve just removed the incentive for the businesses in that market to pay to influence government.
Somewhere along the line since taking power in 1994, the Republicans in Congress have abandoned the philosophy of limited government. And by becoming the party of government, they have allowed themselves to be corrupted by the Jack Abramoffs of the world. That’s not why we sent them there. The party either needs to clean house, or the voters may just do it for them.