GOTCHA GOTTA GO? NO.

Apparently, Sam Waterston has ended his much-lamented silence in American political discourse and spoken out to urge his adoring fans to heed the call of the “American idealists” at Unity08. They’re the folks who believe that all the scourges of modern American politics – special interest-driven corruption, nasty gotcha politics, the belief that women’s rights is a crucial issue – could be beaten back if only there was a presidential ticket composed not of Democrats or Republicans but of one of each, and chosen not by people who turn out in primaries but by people who turn out in primaries held over the internet by “American idealists.”

For those stubborn folks for whom Sam Waterson having “looked at it closely”, isn’t sufficient evidence that Unity08 “could save this country we love,” some obvious questions present themselves. Well, a lot of obvious questions.

Here’s one: Would a decline in gotcha politics really go hand in hand with a decline in corruption?

The conflation of the two is commonplace in media narratives grasping for any explanation of voter disgust with Congress that doesn’t involve the kinds of laws the Congress is passing or isn’t. But I think the irony here is that one of few functional bulwarks against rampant corruption in Washington is gotcha politics.

If our elected officials were circumspect about not disparaging the character of their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, would the likes of Conrad Burns and Bob Ney have gone down to defeat? Would incoming legislators, new and old, have as much reason to fear following in their footsteps? Quotes from CREW’s Melanie Sloan in and of themselves are simply not enough to grab media and voter attention, let alone overcome all the advantages of incumbency. What helps the charges stick? Relentless criticism from the folks with a chance, at least sometimes, of getting heard: your challenger, and your fellow elected officials. If you don’t have to fear getting gotcha-ed, there’s more cause to do gotcha-worthy things.

Now of course it would be nice to truly venal behavior by elected officials got called out on both sides of the aisle. It’s simply not credible to claim, as the Unity08 folks and much of the media do, that both parties have the same track record on this. Compare the treatment of Bill Jefferson (D-LA) and Tom DeLay (R-TX) by their party leaders. One lost his committee chairmanship. The other was positioned for a good stretch to remain Majority Leader. Unfortunately, opinion leaders who can count more adherents than Sam Waterston delight in the myth that the two parties are bearers of equal and opposite corruption, and that that corruption – the reward of money with power and of power with money – has no relationship to ideology.

That said, when elected officials do speak in one voice across party lines, it’s as often to unite across party lines in defense of questionable congressional practices as in condemnation of them. Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert stood together in a show of bipartisanship to condemn the FBI search of Jefferson’s office. Senators and congressmen of both parties stand together to raise their salaries swiftly and quietly. They stand firm in bipartisan defense of gerrymandering congressional districts. That’s because no matter how otherwise representative your member of congress is of you, she will always be fundamentally unrepresentative in that she is herself a member of congress. Dave Barry once said the best way to get great Nielson ratings would be to make a sitcom about a Nielson family. Similarly, if you’re looking to find policies that members of Congress acorss the political spectrum will support, the right place to start is with policies that make it easier, more enjoyable, and more permanent to be a member of Congress. If you want to see those policies stop, bemoaning gotcha politics is not the place to start.

DEEP FREEZE

The past week has offered the odd spectacle of Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert standing shoulder to shoulder in defending a Democratic congressman’s supposed right not to have criminal investigators raid his office. On the law, I think they’re on the wrong side. As Akhil Amar (whose lecture was one of the only courses my bro and I took together) writes:

W.J. is a target of a criminal corruption investigation, and if criminally charged, he would have no more Arrest Clause protection than any of the countless other sitting Congress members who have been criminally prosecuted over the years—Dan Rostenkowski, Duke Cunningham, and Tom DeLay, to name just three. Since W.J. has no immunity from an ordinary criminal arrest, it is hard to see why he has some kind of blanket immunity from an ordinary criminal search to uncover evidence of his suspected crime. If other white-collar suspects are vulnerable to office searches, why is William Jefferson any different?

In terms of political strategy, Hastert’s move (and the zeal of Sensenbrenner et al to follow him) is noteworthy because Jefferson’s case was the only one (contra John Solomon) offering serious ammunition for the Republicans’ claim that the current crop of corruption is a bipartisan problem. Had Hastert and company wanted, with a media establishment all too eager to expound on the “everybody does it narrative,” they could have a primed a whole raft of stories this week to the effect that Democrats and Republicans both have to get their houses in order, and the only difference is that the Democrats’ house includes a refrigerator with $90,000 hidden inside. That claim is bogus (and it’s worth noting that Jefferson is as “New Democrat” as they get), but it would have gotten traction nonetheless.

So the Republican leadership could not have passed on it lightly. Apparently, they decided that a week of reinforcing the idea that Democrats are equally corrupt was worth less than a week of reinforcing the idea that members of Congress have the right not to be aggressively investigated. The fact that of the two opportunities, the Republicans chose to spend this week lying the groundwork for the idea that congressmen have special privacy rights (and seeming civic-minded for throwing a fit in defense of a Democrat) suggests that they expect a slew of additional Republican congressmen to come under investigation. And chances are they’re right.

What’s harder to explain is Nancy Pelosi’s choice to get on board with the whole exercise. Presumably, she sees in this debacle a chance to exacerbate intra-GOP tensions and reinforce a narrative of executive overreach by the Bush administration. But when it comes to dividing the party on itself over raids like this one, she can only get in the way. And when it comes to taking a stand against executive overreach, the rights of congressmen are the last place the American people want or need the Democrats to assert themselves. As Barney Frank said on the floor:

I think, in particular, for the leadership of this House, which has stood idly by while this administration has ignored the rights of citizens, to then say we have special rights as Members of Congress is wholly inappropriate.

The Jefferson case, inconvenient as it is, allows the Democratic leaders to differentiate themselves from their Republican counterparts. Pelosi can and should condemn William Jefferson in terms that Dennis Hastert will never condemn Tom DeLay. That’s because the nexus of corporate interest and political power that does so much to breed corruption in Washington is one which undergirds the modern Republican party and which, for all the efforts of some Democrats to cozy up to it, is fundamentally opposed to the long-term interests of the Democratic party.

Pelosi did the right thing by calling on William Jefferson to resign. She could drawn a further contrast by coming out strongly against Hastert’s claim of special privilege for him. Just as Hastert has more credibility defending the supposed privacy rights of a member of the opposition, Pelosi would have more credibility denying those claims when applied to a member of her own party. Instead, look for Dennis Hastert to invoke the Jefferson precedent to call on Nancy Pelosi to join him in throwing up roadblocks to a full investigation of another crooked colleague – or perhaps of Hastert himself.

MEET THE NEW BOSS, STRANGELY REMINISCENT OF THE OLD BOSS

(Apologies to The Who, and by extension, to Zach)

Via David Sirota, here’s an illuminating Post piece from ’03 on then-Whip, now-Majority Leader Roy Blunt:

Only hours after Rep. Roy Blunt was named to the House’s third-highest leadership job in November, he surprised his fellow top Republicans by trying to quietly insert a provision benefiting Philip Morris USA into the 475-page bill creating a Department of Homeland Security, according to several people familiar with the effort. The new majority whip, who has close personal and political ties to the company, instructed congressional aides to add the tobacco provision to the bill — then within hours of a final House vote — even though no one else in leadership supported it or knew he was trying to squeeze it in. ..Blunt has received large campaign donations from Philip Morris, his son works for the company in Missouri and the House member has a close personal relationship with a Washington lobbyist for the firm…Several [GOP insiders] say they were struck by Blunt’s willingness to go out on a limb for a company to which he has ties. What’s more, he did it within hours of climbing to the House leadership’s third-highest rung, a notable achievement for a man who came to Washington less than six years ago…

Psyched to see what new and innovative kinds of cronyism he rolls out now that he’s on the second rung from the top?

Blunt’s ascension only underscores the importance of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s point about how unnecessary DeLay is to DeLayism, and of Nathan Newman’s observation that making the GOP pay for DeLayism requires a willingness to take on the corporate interests that bankroll it.

(Update: Post altered to erase all evidence of my total lack of culture)

THE WEEK IN, UM, ME

Just got back tonight from a great week in Cali with the mishpuchah. Turns out that jellyfish aren’t fish, there were no birds at Alcatraz, and “Half Dome” isn’t particularly dome-like (though it is particularly awesome).

“But enough about your vacation,” you say, “how about your sprawling media empire?” Funny you should ask.

Just kidding.

Absence of a sprawling media empire notwithstanding, I am happy to report that Josh Marshall, in a valiant effort to give me something to do this summer that (unlike learning to drive and speak Spanish) doesn’t fall under the category of “Finally getting around to what everyone else did in high school,” generously asked me last month to be a Research Fellow over at TPMCafe. I’ve been working with a great group of folks over there on the Auction House, our attempt to keep up with the many-splendored series of scandals surrounding The Hammer and his tools. It’s been a blast so far, and I’m sure will continue to be. My first Auction House post, a look at DeLay and Abramoff’s sketchiest mutual friends, went up last week. Think of it as (with pretty insincere apologies to fellow Akiba Hebrew Academy alum Mitch Albom) Six People You Don’t Meet in Heaven. Check it out.

WE KNOW TOM DELAY

Yesterday’s Houston Chronicle names my family’s home district, Pennsylvania’s sixth, as the nation’s top swing district for the 2006 elections. The article previews the strategy rightly being pushed by Howard Dean and others (with too little support from Congressional Democrats) to nationalize these elections as referenda on the corrupt record of Tom DeLay and his enablers, like our Congressman Jim Gerlach. Gerlach’s response?

Gerlach said the Texan’s ethics controversies would have little impact in the district, saying that most voters here “don’t know who Tom DeLay is.”

Unfortunately for Gerlach, a great and growing number of us know all too well who Tom DeLay is. We know Tom DeLay violated House Ethics Rules by taking a vacation in Moscow paid for by a front group for Russian government lobbyists and claiming it was funded by a non-profit in DC. We know Tom DeLay broke the same law on a trip to South Korea paid for by lobbyists for that government. We know Tom DeLay’s PAC is under investigation for illegally funneling cash from big business. And we know that each of Tom DeLay’s scandals stems from his close working relationship with embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose theft of millions of dollars from Native American tribes John McCain called “simply and sadly a tale of betrayal.” We also know that Jim Gerlach, who claims to be an independent representative of the people of Pennsylvania’s sixth district, voted repeatedly to weaken ethics rules on Tom DeLay’s behalf and donated $2,000 to his Legal Defense Fund. Jim Gerlach sides with Tom DeLay on nine out of ten votes, supporting destructive and irresponsible fiscal, social, and foreign policy that hurts our district. Jim Gerlach’s problem is that his constituents know Tom DeLay, we know Jim Gerlach, and we know that we can do better.

Watching the objection to the Ohio Count:

1:20 Whatever the Times said, Dick Cheney sure doesn’t look happy about this.

1:30 Rep. Tubbs Jones (D-OH): “If they are willing to stand for countless hours in the rain, as many did in Ohio, then I should be willing to stand for them in the halls of Congress.”

1:35 Rep. Pryce (R-OH): Just be nice and take it like John Kerry. The election is like so 2004.

1:38 Rep. Pryce (R-OH) and Sen. DeWine (R-OH) simultaneously: Lots of newspapers agree with us. Why don’t you?

1:42 Rep. Conyers (D-MI): “Not a single election official in Ohio has given us an explanation for the massive and widespread irregularities across the state.”

1:45 Rep. Sanders (I-VT): “What today is about is to demand that the federal government begin to move forward to ensure that every voter is country can be confident that every vote is counted accurately and every voter is treated fairly.”

1:46 Rep. Blunt (R-MO): People who were elected shouldn’t attack elections. And if you attack the election process, you don’t support the electoral troops.

1:49 Sen. Durbin (D-IL): “We can and should do better…I will take [Jackson’s amendment] seriously.”

1:51 Rep. Watt (D-NC): “The eyes of the world will be watching how we handle this – we’ll not treat it as frivolous when people are denied the right to vote…If we pretend that this is frivolous, then we are not moving forward.”

1:55 Sen. Stabenow (D-MI): “In Ohio, the provisional ballot was rendered virtually worthless when Ohio’s Secretary of State ruled that the ballot was legitimate only when the ballot was cast in the precinct.”

1:57 Rep. Ney (R-OH): Your standards are too high. Anyway, Republicans get disenfranchised sometimes too.

2:00 Sen. Wyden (D-OR): Ohio has a lot to learn from Oregon. Why is the GOP more concerned about allegations that one dog got to vote than that hundreds of thousands couldn’t?

2:03 Rep. Pelosi (D-CA): “This is their only opportunity to have this debate while the country is listening, and it is appropriate for them to do so…This is not just about what happens in counting votes, but in all three phases: before, during, and after the election…lines of up to ten hours in some areas. You can deny it all you want, but it is a matter of public record that it happened, and that it is wrong.”

2:10 Rep. Reynolds (R-NY): Come on, we already passed a law about this. You guys are like a Japanese soldier who can’t surrender.

2:13 Sen. Clinton (D-NY): Can’t we at least get a hearing? Why do we get better paper trails on lottery tickets?

2:16 Sen. Reid (D-NV): “While the literacy tests and poll taxes of the past are gone, more insidious practices continue to taint our electoral system.”

2:22 Sen. Harkin (D-IA): “Standing in line hours to vote is like throwing acid in the face of democracy…There was an average of 4.9 machines in Bush districts, while there was an average of 3.9 machines in Kerry districts…What we saw was a concerted effort to suppress the right of Americans to cast a vote.”

2:25 Rep. Hayworth (R-AZ): Doesn’t Kerry’s concession speech sound better when you read it with em-pha-sis on every sin-gle sy-lla-ble?

2:27 Rep. Kucinich (D-OH): “They encouraged the use of provisional ballots to make it more difficult for minority voters to vote.”

2:30 Sen. Obama (D-IL): “This is something that we can fix…What we’ve lacked is the political will.”

2:34 Sen. Dodd (D-CT): “The real test will come in the next few days when we have the chance to introduce legislation on this.”

2:36 Sen. Voinovich (R-OH): We know how to count in Ohio. “I am proud of how the election went in Ohio.”

2: 39 Rep. Cummings (D-MD): “What we are addressing is the fundamental right to vote.”

2:40 Rep. McKinney (D-GA): “It is not only our right but our responsibility to demand full democracy at home…This is not about a recount. This is about a blackout.”

2:43 Rep. Dreier (R-CA): Democratic criticism of the functioning of the democratic process in the United States encourages terrorists. Why would anyone want to become a democracy when they see that there can be disputes?

2:47 Rep. Drake (R-VA): Either the President is an idiot, or he’s an evil genius. But not both.

2:50 Rep. Jackson (D-IL): “At present, voting in the United States is a state right, not a citizen’s right…All separate, all unequal…Our voting system is built on the sand of states’ rights…We need to build our democracy on the fundamental individual guarantee in the constitution of the right to vote.”

2:53 Rep. Lewis (D-GA): “Our electoral system is broken, and it must be fixed once for all…How can get over it when people died for the right to vote?”

2:54 Rep. Jindal (R-LA): I am really excited about getting elected, and you guys are ruining it. Next thing you know the Palestinians will sue when they lose elections.

2:57 Rep. Tiberi (R-OH): You’re hurting the feelings of election workers by criticizing things that happened during the election.

3:00 Rep. Woolsey (D-CA): “If we don’t [change], why would any American bother to vote?”

3:02 Rep. Owns (D-NY): “Our mission for democracy in Iraq would be totally shattered if we insisted that that country be split in thirty or fifty divisions, each with its own rules, each with its own standards.”

3:05 Rep. Kingston (R-GA): Dead people voting is a bigger problem than systematic disenfranchisement. If these Democrats loved America as much as my blind father, they wouldn’t mind waiting in lines.

3:07 Rep. Keller (R-FL): Michael Moore has used voodoo on Barbara Boxer.

3:13 Rep. Waters (D-CA): “There is no justification for denying the vote of someone voting in the right county but the wrong precinct. The voter’s intent is clear.”

3:16 Rep. Boehner (R-OH): You’ve disrupted my healing process. “If we really want to have a debate about how elections are run, that debate ought to happen in each of the fifty state legislatures.”

3:25 Rep. Portman (R-OH): If there was a conspiracy to disenfranchise people, I would have known about it.

3:31 Delegate Holmes Norton (D-DC): “If we are the democracy we say we are, we must show it today.”

3:41 Rep. DeLay (R-TX): The Democrats are blowing a great chance to declare support for all of Bush’s plans for the country. Me, I love the New Deal and Civil Rights. I would love to see more like that from them.