Seizing reform after the sleaze

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In the wake of the Jack Abramoff plea agreement earlier this week, members stampeded to return his direct contributions–and even some supplied by his Indian tribe clients–as if that were a way to completely distance themselves from the sleaze. It was a great week for charitable giving, with House Speaker Dennis Hastert donating $69,000 to charities and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLaygiving away $15,000. And Democrats weren't immune to the guilt-by-association problem, either, withByron Dorgangiving away $67,000 and Max Baucus $18,800.

But that's just not going to be good enough. Polls taken before the Abramoff scandal was plastered acrossthe front pages show that Americans considerboth parties equally unethical. The question is whether either party will be able to become the reformer, cleaning up a system that seems to get in touch with its inner sleaze every decade or so.

If the Republicans are smart, says a former member of the House GOP leadership, they will take charge of reforming the lobbying system.

"The Democrats can only win this as a partisan issue if the Republicans allow them to do so by basically putting their heads in the sand and pretending nothing needs to happen," says Vin Weber, now a lobbyist. Weber,a compatriot of Newt Gingrich's when the GOP took over the House in 1994, knows the drill only too well: The Democrats tried to make believe their own scandals were minor and so the Republicans won by nationalizing that election, calling the Democrats a corrupt majority. It worked.

Infact, that's exactly what the Democrats are trying to do now. They are campaigning furiously to convince the public that the GOP is a corrupt party out of control. One small problem: They got money from Abramoff, too, albeit not in as great quantities. After all, as former House counsel Stan Brand tells me, "there's no percentage in bribing the minority because they don't have any power."

Still, if the Republicans decide not to take a leadership role in reforming the corrupt lobbying system, the Democrats might just be able to convince the public that the majority is corrupt and that it's time for a change.