Washington's response to the Abramoff indictment has evolved in an important way over the last two weeks.
Initially, the reaction focused narrowly on the role of Washington influence-peddling. This elicited knee-jerk proposals from predictable sources: ban privately sponsored travel for members of Congress, bar all federal employees from accepting meals, ban political fundraising within 100 miles of the Capitol, and so on. The common goal of these approaches: to hermetically seal the Capitol from the evil influence of lobbyists. The problem with this approach, of course, is that Congress may overreact and inadvertently seal itself off from virtually all outside sources of information. This problem has already caused ethics officers in federal agencies to tell senior staff with serious policy responsibilities that they cannot accept books - serious research tomes, mind you - if the list price exceeds the $25 gift limit. The Heritage Guide to the Constitution ought not to be equated with an Enron executive dangling airline tickets to a golfing junket to the Caribbean.
Luckily, Congress was in no condition to embrace this ill-considered approach. For these last two weeks, members of Congress have been scattered across the country in their respective districts. This has given them time to get lots of feedback from their constituents, to ponder the media's (both mainstream and alternative) assessment of the problem, to digest local and national news stories, to read the op-eds, to scour the blogs, and to endure the endless political chat shows.
Thus, they've been able to gather lots of information and ponder lots of different viewpoints. And, most importantly, they've been able to contemplate the situation and begin sorting things out for themselves in places far removed from the distractions and influences of the Washington bubble.
As a result, the discussion appears to have morphed from the initial seal-the-dome approach (which merely addresses the symptoms of a disease) to a much different and more promising one: address the underlying disease itself. And that disease, conservatives agree, is the ever-expanding size and scope of our federal government. As long as Congress keeps growing government, the lobbyists (and their resources) will continue to try to milk the system for more and more.
Two weeks in, conservatives have begun to coalesce around policies that will remove the incentive lobbyists now have to invest unfathomable amounts of money in garnering the attention of lawmakers and their staffs. Among the promising ideas being floated:
- End the practice, known as earmarking, of sending taxpayer dollars to specific entities for the narrowest of purposes;
- Reform the budget process so that the deck is no longer stacked against lawmakers who want to reduce the level of spending;
- Sunset all federal programs so that dysfunctional programs do not live on indefinitely;
- Revive proposals from the heady days of the Gingrich-Armey Revolution that would prevent recipients of federal largesse from lobbying Congress;
- Breathe life into a moribund House rule that, if it were ever enforced, would require witnesses before congressional committees to reveal any and all federal funds flowing to their organizations.
My guess is that this shift in the response to the Abramoff scandal has not been lost on the 231 GOP House members who will soon return to Washington and elect their next majority leader. To the extent that House Republicans rally around reforms that address the diseased state of our budget and appropriations processes, they can seize the same moral high ground they once occupied during those early days of the GOP revolution.
Mike Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in National Review Online