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Published: Saturday, 12/13/2003

Some call it bribery

Though you won t find it in any civics textbook, the tactics used by Republican leaders to ram through the Medicare bill in the early morning hours of Nov. 22 are alarmingly illustrative of the bare-knuckle way business is being done in Congress these days.

Rep. Nick Smith, of Addison, Mich., whose 7th District includes Lenawee and Hillsdale counties, was one of the few Republicans who voted no on the bill, a Bush Administration priority. He says he did so even after “bribes and special deals were offered to convince members to vote yes.”

The legislation, including its controversial prescription drug benefit for the elderly, eventually passed the House, but only after the customary 15-minute voting period was extended to a historic 2 hours and 51 minutes.

Further defying legislative tradition, Speaker Dennis Hastert brought a Bush cabinet member, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, onto the House floor to lobby for votes.

Mr. Smith held his ground, but later declared, “I thought I knew arm twisting [after] serving 16 years in the Michigan legislature and 11 years in the United States Congress. However, this was the most intense and strongest pressure to change my vote that I ve ever experienced.”

What was most disturbing wasn t just the lobbying of Mr. Smith, who is leaving Congress next year, but the threats of retribution against his son, Brad, who will be running next year to succeed his father.

It was subsequently reported that an unnamed Republican promised that business interests would contribute $100,000 to Brad Smith s 2004 campaign in exchange for the father s vote. Conversely, the threat was made, as Representative Smith said, that “they d work against him if I said no.”

That, in so many words, is a bribe. We could get all exercised about defiling the sanctity of the legislative chamber, but - stripping away the hyperbole - it s no secret that this is the way things are done in Washington every day, if not actually on the floor of the House.

The congressman now says that “no member of Congress” posed the quid pro quo arrangement, but that leaves a whole lot of political operatives as suspects.

Charles Lewis, who heads Washington s Center for Public Integrity, called the episode a “revealing vignette” on how Congress really operates.

Norman Ornstein, political analyst for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said allowing Mr. Thompson onto the House floor to lobby “stains the leadership.”

That s a stinging indictment, but one senses that indictments of the grand jury sort or at least ethics charges would be needed to curb this sort of incipient corruption. Most observers, however, believe that no official action will be taken because Republicans and Democrats have a “wink-wink” agreement not to pursue ethics complaints against each other.

There is a sense in Washington, and among Washington observers, that even the barest of the old constraints that preserved a modicum of decorum and ethical behavior have been cast aside in favor of opportunism at its most immediate.

As a nation s motto, “Get it while you can” doesn t have quite the same moral cachet as “In God we trust,” but, sadly, that s the way the game is played today.



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