10.19.2006 -- President Bush declared this week "National Character Counts Week." Americans are supposed to remember our commitments to "values such as integrity, courage, honesty, and patriotism" that "sustain our democracy, make self-government possible, and help build a more hopeful future." But the nation's lawmakers are the ones most in need of the reminder. Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi writes, "These past six years were more than just the most shameful, corrupt and incompetent period in the history of the American legislative branch. These were the years when the U.S. parliament became a historical punch line...a stable of thieves and perverts who committed crimes rolling out of bed in the morning and did their very best to turn the mighty American empire into a debt-laden, despotic backwater, a Burkina Faso with cable." The current congressional leadership has put its self-interest above the common good and has refused to clean house or pass meaningful ethics reform legislation. "The 109th Congress is so bad that it makes you wonder if democracy is a failed experiment," notes constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley. The American people are getting fed up. The right-wing Congress is now at its lowest approval rating in 14 years. According to recent polls, 97 percent of Americans say that corruption in government will be an important consideration when they vote in November's elections and 85 percent want the government to commit "to the common good and put the public's interest above the privileges of the few."
STAIN ON THE WHITE HOUSE
Many members of the Bush administration are far from role models during this Character Counts Week. On Oct. 6, key White House aide Susan Ralston resigned "in the wake of congressional report that listed hundreds of contacts between disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the White House." Ralston received her job with Karl Rove on a recommendation from Abramoff. She was lobbied 69 times -- more than any other White House official -- and received tickets from Abramoff to sporting events and concerts. But former White House political director Ken Mehlman may have been the real "go-to" guy for Abramoff. "Everyone would appreciate it if you would contact Ken only and not others here at the WH," read one message to Abramoff from Ralston, "because they just forward it to him anyway." In 2002, Abramoff asked the White House to remove Allen Stayman, a State Department official who had opposed the interests of an Abramoff client in the Northern Mariana Islands. The e-mails reveal that Mehlman agreed to "get him fired."
UP TO THE EARS IN EARMARKS
Lawmakers have masterfully figured out how to insert spending proposals known as "earmarks" into federal legislation without public scrutiny. These earmarks often benefit few people except the lawmaker and his or her wealthy donors. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) has earmarked more than $8 million for a project supposed to make Montana a center for space-related research and industry. But in reality, it has "produced few tangible results while spawning several state and federal investigations. It has also earned lobbyists and companies connected to Burns hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts and lobbying fees as well as more than $80,000 in campaign contributions for Burns and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT)." Perhaps no lawmaker has come to represent earmark corruption more than former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA), who pled guilty in Nov. 2005, to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes from government contractors. On Wednesday, Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, released a report on Cunningham's corruption, concluding that unfortunately, Cunningham wasn't the only crooked government official; there "was a lot of people to persuade, cajole, deceive, pressure, intimidate, bribe, or otherwise influence to do what they wanted." Another new report this week by the Wall Street Journal found that Rep. Charles Taylor (R-NC) has earmarked more than $30 million for nonprofits which he either created or are run by his supporters. A $4.8 million earmark in last year's transportation bill went to "widen parts of U.S. Highway 64, a winding mountain road that runs near tracts of timberland" that one of Taylor's companies owns. To date, there have been 15,832 earmarks in 2006, at a cost to taxpayers of $71.77 billion. ALL IN THE FAMILY
Lawmakers aren't the only ones to benefit from earmarks -- their families do, as well. Lobbying firms have picked up on this nepotism, and according to a new USA Today investigation, these firms "employed 30 family members last year to influence spending bills that their relatives with ties to the House and Senate appropriations committees oversaw or helped write." In 2005 alone, "appropriations bills contained about $750 million for projects championed by lobbyists whose relatives were involved in writing the spending bills." The latest FBI investigation into family corruption revolves around Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), who may have traded his political influence to win lucrative -- nearly $1 million per year -- lobbying contracts for his daughter's firm. Weldon repeatedly lobbied federal officials -- including Karl Rove -- on behalf of Itera, a controversial Russian natural gas company. Itera paid $500,000 to Karen Weldon's firm on Sept. 30, 2002, six days after her father arranged a dinner at the Library of Congress to honor Itera. "It's getting to the point where no one bothers to hide what appear to be raging conflicts of interest," noted Ronald Utt of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
THE BLAME GAME
An Oct. 11 Associated Press report found that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) collected $700,000 on a Las Vegas land sale even though he hadn't personally owned the property for three years. Reid had failed to disclose to Congress an earlier transaction "in which he transferred his land to a company created by a friend and took a financial stake in that company." Reid countered that, although the title to the land had passed to a joint venture, he maintained continual ownership over the property. Nevertheless, Reid immediately apologized for the oversight lapse and amended his 2001 disclosure forms and asked the Senate Ethics Committee to clarify the matter. Other lawmakers took a different approach. Weldon, for example, has blamed Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington Executive Director Melanie Sloan, former National Security Advisor Samuel Berger, and former CIA officer Mary McCarthy for his current ethical troubles. He believes the FBI's investigation is "revenge for his criticisms." Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), who last week pled guilty in the Abramoff investigation, has blamed his legal troubles on the Justice Department, the media, and liberal groups.
Because of a single earmark in a 2005 federal highway bill, House Speaker Dennis Hastert's (R-IL) net worth went from approximately $300,000 to at least $6.2 million. After acquiring land in 2002, Hastert inserted $207 million into the 2005 highway bill for construction of the Prairie Parkway Corridor, a highway that "had neither the support of the public nor the Illinois Department of Transportation," but was just over a mile from the property owned by Hastert's trust. Once the bill passed, Hastert sold his property at "a profit equal to 500 percent of his original investment," notes Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Scott Lilly and American Enterprise Institute Resident Scholar Norman Ornstein. The Speaker used his official position to profit at the expense of American taxpayers. Media Matters reports that CNN has devoted 50 times as much coverage to Reid's case as to Hastert's. Time magazine has yet to mention the Hastert land scandal, but devoted three paragraphs in an Oct. 13 article to the assertion that Reid has "found himself embroiled in a real estate scandal."
TIME TO TAKE OUT THE TRASH
The right-wing Congress refuses to clean house. Despite pleading guilty, Ney is not resigning from Congress immediately, but rather "in the next few weeks." Instead of cooperating with Harman to release the report on Cunningham, House Intelligence Committee chairman Peter Hoekstra (R-MI) condemned the release of the report before the November elections, stating that Harman's actions were "disturbing and beyond the pale." Conservative lawmakers continue to donate heavily to Rep. Don Sherwood (R-PA), who is now facing a lawsuit by a woman with whom he had a five-year affair. She alleges that he repeatedly beat her and "seriously injured her physically and emotionally." Weak lobbying bills passed by the House and the Senate earlier in the year have stalled and lawmakers have yet to set up a committee to reconcile differences between the two bills.
BUSH AGREES IRAQ VIOLENCE MAY BE 'JIHADIST EQUIVALENT OF THE TET OFFENSIVE'
In an interview yesterday with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, President Bush said he agreed with a recent op-ed arguing that the current spike of violence in Iraq could be the “jihadist equivalent” of the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which was “widely credited with eroding support for President Johnson” and turning the American public against that war. "[The op-ed] could be right. There's certainly a stepped up level of violence, and we’re heading into an election," Bush told Stephanopoulos. President Bush's statement is an admission that violence in Iraq has reached a tipping point, and that the U.S. is not winning the war as he has claimed. However, the increasing violence in Iraq is not a propaganda campaign by Iraqis to impact the U.S. elections, as Bush suggests. It is a civil war, as Iraqi officials, U.S. troops in Iraq and seven in ten Americans have said.