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Published: Sunday, 1/8/2006

Are politicians, in fact, for sale?

WASHINGTON - Tempting as it is to say a pox on all their houses, we are confronted with the question of the extent of corruption in Washington's political circles.

Are government officials and actions, in fact, for sale?

The once-flamboyant, multi-hatted Jack Abramoff, whose name is now synonymous with political turpitude, survived and thrived because many powerful members of Congress eagerly accepted his contributions to their re-election campaigns.

Politicians from President Bush on down through the ranks of Congress took the Abramoff largesse because they wanted to be re-elected. To stay in power, pols raise millions of dollars to defeat opponents. Inviting the Abramoffs of the country to White House socials pays off with bigger cash dividends than shaking a thousand hands at a state fair or making a hundred calls to friends for donations.

There are no vicuna coats in this scandal, as far as we know (fur being politically incorrect at the moment). No call-girl ring has been busted on Capitol Hill (albeit the aphrodisiac of power will be with us until the end of time). But this latest spate of revealed corruption will do far more harm because it is so entrenched, so sophisticated, and so sickening.

What lobbyists such as Abramoff seek is a seat at the table when laws are written and regulations are finalized so that their clients' interests hold sway.

There is not one aspect of human life untouched by congressional hands. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the cars we drive, the medicines we take, how we invest our money, the way we die, the care we get when we're sick or old - it all is regulated, and Congress has oversight over everything.

We do not yet know whether the latest West Virginia coal-mine tragedy was caused by violation of safety rules. We do know that the Bush Administration has not issued one significant coal-mine safety regulation in five years. We do know that despite promising mammoth increases in penalties for safety violations, the administration has yet to act to demand them. We do know that the first person the administration put in charge of mine safety came from the mining industry and had vehement views on the need to get government off its back. We do know that congressional oversight on mine safety has been abysmal.

There is a line between excessive regulation, which stultifies business expansion, and too light a federal hand on business, which means the worker and the consumer get shafted.

This administration has worked hard to lift the heavy hands of federal regulators off the shoulders of big business (less so off small business). Strident voices such as Ralph Nader's have been loudly complaining, but for many reasons have been ignored.

Sometimes critics cried wolf too often. Sometimes the intricacies of the issues they raised were too daunting for all but the most dedicated zealots to unravel. And when fewer people buy newspapers, there are fewer reporters paid to dig into mounds of arcane records searching for evidence of fraud and abuse. (TV sometimes tries, but is woefully unable to commit the needed manpower to investigative reporting.)

There is a noble purpose to lobbying. No legislator can be adequately familiar with every aspect of every bill. Lobbyists from all sides of an issue - for example, for the coal company, for the worker, and for the environmental group - compete to get their interests written into legislation. What is unfair and illegal is when lobbyists with big bucks spread them around in a way calculated to get the votes of lawmakers.

Some lawmakers refuse to have anything to do with the bad lobbyists who lurk on Capitol Hill. They are the good guys. The legislators who took money from Abramoff and his ilk convinced themselves they were just doing what "everybody else does" to stay in office so they can "do good" and pass legislation that matters. Most of them did not take the money to get rich - for one thing, that's too easily traced. Many of them passionately believe in what they are doing.

But what these witless co-conspirators have done is further undermine public confidence, chisel away at the credibility of government, and give comfort to enemies convinced the democratic system is no better than any other and maybe even worse.

Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher said the Abramoff pleas of guilty to felonious bribing of lawmakers, evasion of taxes, and bilking of clients show that "government officials and government action are not for sale."

But as the investigation continues into how many webs Abramoff has spun, we have no confidence her statement is true.


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