Scandals Raise Questions over Congressional Ethics Congress is roiled with political scandals in both the House and the Senate, from bribery to influence peddling to illegal campaign contributions. Are ethical breaches a fact of life on Capitol Hill, or a new way of doing the people's business?
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Scandals Raise Questions over Congressional Ethics

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Scandals Raise Questions over Congressional Ethics

Scandals Raise Questions over Congressional Ethics

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Golf trips to Scotland, Rolls-Royces, concert tickets and lavish homes: Is it the lifestyles of the rich and famous or of the Congress? This year's series of high-profile ethics scandals involving politicians like former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist have exposed what some people, mainly Democrats, are calling a culture of corruption in Congress.

Can we believe that? Well, here's some facts. In the last five years, the number of lobbyists in Washington has doubled to more than 30,000 while the number of seats in Congress has, of course, stayed steady at 535. The cost of campaigning has skyrocketed and so have special earmarks in legislation, projects that sometimes can benefit one industry or even a single corporation. Meanwhile, Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert recently proposed ethics training classes for all members of the House and their staffs and President Bush mandated similar training for staff at the White House. So is Washington in some kind of ethical crisis, a peak of corruption? Or is this business as usual? What are the options to fix these problems and will they work? Today we'll look at the cast of characters involved in the ethics investigations, both Republican and Democrat, and try to put the current political environment into a historical and ethical perspective.

Join the conversation. Do you understand the ethics investigations that are under way? Do you care? Do you think that the behavior of individual lawmakers affects you? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is

Later in the program we'll talk about charities and how they're handling huge sums of money after a spike in giving for Hurricane Katrina victims. But first, Congress and ethics. Peter Overby joins us here in Studio 3A. Peter covers power, money and influence for NPR.

Hi, Peter.

PETER OVERBY (NPR Reporter): Hi, Andrea.

SEABROOK: Let's start with--it just seems like there's so many things going on. Can you give us an overview. How many investigations are going on? Where are they?

OVERBY: I'll try. Let's see, let's start first with the congressional leaders. Congressman Tom DeLay was House majority leader. He is now facing trial on money laundering charges down in Texas. That's a state law, not a federal law. The allegation is that, in the 2002 legislative races down there, where the Republicans were trying to take control of the state Legislature, a political action committee connected to him essentially laundered money that they sent--sent to Washington money that wasn't legal in state legislative races. That money went to the Republican National Committee and the Republican National Committee then made contributions totaling a similar amount to Texas Republican legislative candidates.

SEABROOK: Making the money look like it was legal, in other words. That's what's alleged?

OVERBY: That's the allegation, yeah.


OVERBY: You know, it boils down to money laundering. In fact, that's what the charge is.


OVERBY: DeLay's lawyers wanted to have the trial as fast as possible and then started filing motions to speed things up and those motions themselves have slowed the process down.

SEABROOK: Because, of course, they can always be appealed and...

OVERBY: Right.

SEABROOK: Courts never act that fast.

OVERBY: Yeah. So if the thing was on maybe not a fast track but kind of a medium track before, it now seems to be on something of a slow track.

SEABROOK: And, of course, that's sort of scuttled his chances to come back any time quickly as majority leader, so some people think.

OVERBY: It's looking that way. And then there's going to be kind of a ricochet effect as the Jack Abramoff case comes into view and we'll get to that in a couple of minutes.

SEABROOK: That's a big complicated one.


SEABROOK: First let's talk a little bit about Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

OVERBY: OK. When he came into the Senate, he came in as a guy with a reputation as a great surgeon, really talented guy and also as a member of a family that had made a fortune with the HCA hospital chain, for-profit hospitals. He said that he put all his financial holdings in a blind trust and it turns out not to have been as blind as it might have been. This has to do partly--a lot of it has to do with the Senate ethics rules, where you can have a blind trust and you can be getting statements from the person administering the blind trust about how the trust is doing and what's in it and stuff like that. So he says he's complied with the Senate ethics rules. The Securities and Exchange Commission has different rules for a blind trust and SEC is interested in it and that is where his problem lies.

SEABROOK: So what they're alleging is that he used his--that he made a stock sale on insider trading basically.

OVERBY: That's right. At a point just before HCA stock peaked and then dropped sharply.

SEABROOK: OK. So you've got the SEC investigating Bill Frist over in the Senate side. He's the majority leader. The House side, the former majority leader now, Tom DeLay, has stepped down. He's under criminal investigation for money laundering in Texas.

OVERBY: Right.

SEABROOK: A relatively sort of bigger, more interesting and also harder to understand question is that of Jack Abramoff. Old friend, associate something of Tom DeLay, that's never been worked out, former lobbyist. What are the charges against him?

OVERBY: Right now there's only one charge against him and that has to do with a business deal that went bad down in Florida. The charge is fraud and conspiracy. But he's under investigation in Washington in a case that has to do with how Washington works--the sort of quintessential Washington stuff. His closest partner in the lobbying business has pleaded in this case.

SEABROOK: This is Michael Scanlon?

OVERBY: That's right. He's made a deal with the prosecutors. He pleaded to one count of conspiracy but that one count covers conspiracy to defraud their clients, who were Indian tribes with casino interests, and also in that same conspiracy count, conspiracy to bribe public officials. And in the set of facts that went with Scanlon's plea agreement, they outlined one case against unnamed Representative Number 1, who is clearly Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio, and it...

SEABROOK: Also a Republican.

OVERBY: Right. And it--the statement of facts looks like a template for an indictment basically.

SEABROOK: For Bob Ney.

OVERBY: Yeah. It comes down pretty hard on Mr. Ney.

SEABROOK: And, of course, Scanlon himself used to work for Tom DeLay.

OVERBY: That's right. He was his communications director. Jack Abramoff never worked for DeLay but worked closely with him and they traveled together. Abramoff took DeLay on a golfing trip to Scotland, St. Andrew's, you know, the mecca of golf courses. A trip to Russia, a trip to the Northern Mariana Islands, where Abramoff was representing the garment manufacturers and it was out there on a New Year's holiday trip that DeLay called Abramoff one of his closest and dearest friends.

SEABROOK: So let me make sure we have this straight here. Abramoff and Scanlon used their supposed anyway influence with members of Congress to get Indian tribes and other big interests to pay them money.

OVERBY: Yeah. And, you know, you're talking about people--in the lobbying business, you know, good lobbyists, bad lobbyists, any lobbyist, the essence of your job is to build networks and make connections. Jack Abramoff was a very successful lobbyist. He was very well connected and that's why people are so upset about this. You know, if there's a problem with this connection here, who knows if there's a problem with that connection there?

SEABROOK: Well, let's take a call about that. Dave in Jacksonville, Florida. Hi. Do you have a question about lobbyists?

DAVE (Caller): Yes. Hi. Thanks for taking my call. My question is that, if--it seems as though lobbyists are at the core of the problems with the ethics violations. And I'm just wondering if it doesn't make sense to--or is there a way to curb lobbying in Washington or is that inexorably linked to politicians?

SEABROOK: Peter Overby.

OVERBY: Well, it's inexorably linked to the First Amendment for starters. Lobbying is part of the citizen's right to petition the government for redress of grievances. You can't stop people from going to Congress and asking Congress to take action.

SEABROOK: And it seems like so much of the lobbying business, though, is also wrapped up in big money.


SEABROOK: Can you control that part?

OVERBY: People try. Other people say that either it's a fool's errand or that's unconstitutional as well. But the rising cost of congressional campaigns has a lot to do with this. Lobbyists will tell you that they get a lot of pressure from members of Congress to come across with money; you know, campaign money. You know, it used to be that the, you know, invitations would just roll in on the fax machines. Now they roll in over the e-mail. But, you know, members of Congress are always hitting up lobbyists to make contributions and there is also a problem when the fund-raising gets too closely juxtaposed with the issue that the member of Congress is trying to raise money around.

SEABROOK: So there's this conflict of interests that comes up?

OVERBY: Yeah. Yeah. There's a case not long ago where a member of Congress was going to have a fund-raising event. He wound up canceling it because of bad publicity. He was going to have a fund-raising event with financial people in New York talking about the implications of the Sarbanes-Oxley law.

SEABROOK: Which is the...

OVERBY: Which regulates the financial industry.

SEABROOK: Try and avoid an Enron.

OVERBY: Yeah. So you're talking to people who want to find out how to comply with the law, you know, to--you know, you're going to be giving them tips on how to comply with the law and you're charging them campaign money to do it?

SEABROOK: All kinds of interesting questions. I also want to make sure we get to a few of the examples of Democrats as well. This is not just a problem among Republicans. We're talking about lawmakers and recent charges of corruption on Capitol Hill. Coming up next, an ethicist and a historian offer their perspectives. Also your calls.

I'm Andrea Seabrook. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington.

We're talking about congressional ethics and whether there's a culture of corruption on Capitol Hill. NPR's power, money and influence correspondent Peter Overby is here.

Peter, let's quick--I want to make sure people understand that these webs of ethical problems don't just expand out to Republicans. They're touching Democrats as well.

OVERBY: That's right. You know, we've been talking about Republicans because Republicans control the administration and both houses of Congress. This is a Republican town right now and Republican lobbyists are in the ascendancy the same way the lawmakers are. But the money doesn't all flow to Republicans and one example of that is Byron Dorgan. He's a Democratic senator from North Dakota. He is also co-chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which is the committee that's been investigating Jack Abramoff. Dorgan just wound up returning or divesting his campaign of--I think it was about $67,000 that had come from tribes that Abramoff represented. Abramoff himself had not given--there's no records of Abramoff himself giving money to Democrats, because Abramoff is a very partisan Republican personally.

SEABROOK: Tried and true.

OVERBY: Right. But he would steer his clients to give money where he thought it would be effective, and Dorgan's defense is that whatever he did on behalf of these tribes, he did it because he's always been involved in Indian affairs. He was involved in Indian affairs before Abramoff came along. There's a lot of tribal issues in North Dakota. And, you know, so he's made that argument, but he and some other Democrats have started giving back money that came in with Abramoff connections.

SEABROOK: OK. And I want to make sure that we touch on one other example, and that is that of Duke Cunningham, perhaps the most--the easiest to understand. He is from California, a Republican. What happened there? He's resigned his seat.

OVERBY: Yeah. What happened is that he pleaded guilty in a conspiracy in which he was paid cash and goods worth about $2.4 million. A couple of defense contractors--one of them bought Cunningham's house from him, his house back in California at what seems to be an inflated price. That enabled Cunningham to move up to a much nicer house. The contractor then sold the old house for half of what he'd paid Cunningham for it.

SEABROOK: Huge loss.

OVERBY: Yeah. Which, you know, in the San Diego housing market is a little hard to fathom. Cunningham was living on a yacht in DC. He's been living on a yacht down on the Anacostia River. It turns out the yacht belonged to the contractor.

SEABROOK: Though the yacht was called The Duke-Stir.


SEABROOK: Of course, Duke Cunningham himself has admitted to accepting bribes and corruption in this and may himself end up being an informant in some of these cases.

Let's just ask our listeners for a second, if you work in government or politics, call us or e-mail us with your ethics experience--excuse me, ethics experiences. Our number is (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail is

I want to bring in our next guest. Julian Zelizer is a history professor at Boston University. He's also the author of "On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences, 1948-2000."

Hello, Mr. Zelizer.

Professor JULIAN ZELIZER (Boston University): Hi. Thanks for having me.

SEABROOK: Great to have you here. One of the things that Peter Overby was mentioning just a bit ago was that this is a Republican town, Washington, DC, right now. We're talking about ethics problems among Republicans mainly, though in part because they're in control of the House, the Senate and the White House. So do you see that there were problems? Explain some of the problems to us in Democrats when they were in control of Washington for, you know, about 40 years.

Prof. ZELIZER: Yeah. They experienced similar moments. During the 1970s, for those who remember, between around 1974 and '76, there are a couple of years where there are scandals in the newspaper almost every day involving money and politics, involving the abuse of power, involving the power of committee chairmen to basically do what they want and sex scandals. And they all happened in one moment. And they could prove quite damaging to a party. And Democrats also suffered the same thing in the late '80s and early 1990s, when Speaker Jim Wright in 1989 is forced to resign because of ethics violations and a House post office scandal rocks the Democratic Party. So Democrats faced very similar issues while they were in power.

SEABROOK: Can you describe some of these issues? You know, the check cashing--the check bouncing scandal, these sorts of things.

Prof. ZELIZER: Yeah. I guess there's--the 1970s moments were really about, to go back a little, the power of committee chairmen. So there was one case with Wilbur Mills, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. And he's brought down in a sex scandal in 1974, when he's caught in a tidal basin with a stripper. But his scandal brings up the issue of were chairmen basically allowed to pick and choose what bills would receive the attention of the House, and that was one of the--he had enormous power over taxation. The House post office scandal, which takes place in 1991, is about members of the House being able to write bad checks and get away with it because of the House banking system that was in place at that time. And that raised similar issues not just about how the House bank worked but what Republicans said is that it showed that the party in power was fundamentally corrupt.

SEABROOK: And so, Julian Zelizer, from your vantage point as a history professor who looks at these things, is the unethical behavior we're talking about now in the 109th Congress any different?

Prof. ZELIZER: Well, I would say there's always some amount of unethical behavior in Congress. I mean, this is something you can always find. What makes it different is when we enter a moment when there are many, many stories about corruption all taking place at the same time and many involving the party in power. That's when the kind of scandals that are a little commonplace in Congress can become politically dangerous. And I think that's what we've entered in now, where the party in power is linked to at least the three, four stories you've discussed and in the White House, of course, they are involved in their own problems. And that makes it a very politically explosive moment.

SEABROOK: Some--and many Democrats on Capitol Hill are predicting and perhaps hoping that this will look a lot like 1994, that next year's election in the fall that they say--again mainly Democrats--that these problems have caught up with them to such an extent that Americans will throw them out of Congress and start anew with Democrats. What do you think?

Prof. ZELIZER: Not necessarily. I mean, I think there's three things that can happen when you have these bursts of scandal. One is that they fizzle. Nothing really happens. We've had moments when there's all kinds of scandals and nothing comes out of it. A second is when the focus isn't on changing the party in power but reforming the way Congress works. That's what takes place in the 1970s. And the third alternative is a moment of partisan change, like we had in 1994. And that really depends on what Democrats do now. The opportunity is clearly there. It's still difficult because we don't have many competitive seats at play, but it really depends on how do the Democrats respond to the problems emerging and that remains to be seen in the next year.

SEABROOK: Julian Zelizer, Peter Overby, hang on a second. Let's go to the phones. Patrick in Utica, New York. How you doing?

PATRICK (Caller): Hi. Every single member of the House is up for re-election in November and, since these kinds of--this kind of corruption subverts the proper functioning of our democracy and undermines the public faith and participation in government, shouldn't the public ask each candidate who wants to be elected to pledge to a public finance campaign system and also attach any kind of crime--or any kind of ethical criminal charges to treason charges so that the penalties would be so onerous for ethics violations that no one in the House or Senate would dare try it?

SEABROOK: Patrick, have you asked your member of Congress to follow these rules?

PATRICK: Well, my member of Congress is an idiot, so I don't know if it would do any good. He's been pretty much a lifelong member of Congress and he's lied to his constituency before, so I don't really--he--for example, he said he wasn't going to vote for the recent--Boehlert said he wasn't going to vote for the recent budget, but at the last minute he did support the administration's position on that.

SEABROOK: Thanks for your call, Patrick.

Peter Overby, do you think that this idea of a public financing system is a viable one?

OVERBY: I don't know. I can pretty easily see where the problem would be with it, which is the problem with any campaign finance regulatory system. The Supreme Court says you can regulate some political money, the money that goes directly to candidates, directly to parties. And so there's a line drawn between money that can be regulated and money that cannot be regulated. Wherever you draw that line, there's going to be a lot of money right outside that line pushing right up against it. So if you have public financing, you'll have, say, the candidates qualifying to get public financing and not taking any outside contributions. There are going to be people with outside money trying to figure out how they can spend money in support of their candidate, maybe not necessarily saying, you know, `Go out and vote for Joe Doakes,' but doing some sorts of things to help Joe Doaks get elected.

SEABROOK: And, of course, the Supreme Court, when looking at the campaign finance laws, said money and politics is like water. It just finds any crack and flows into it.

Let's take another call. Aaron in Stockbridge, Michigan. How you doing?

AARON (Caller): I'm good. Thanks for taking my call. I'm wondering about the K Street Project. In '94, when the Republicans came into power, my understanding is is that they basically--at least in one particular case, and there was a kind of broader attitude of, `If you've done any business with the Democrats, we don't want you. You're not going to be involved anymore. You're just done.' I mean, there was one particular case where they got a lobbyist fired or removed from the floor permanently. And I'm wondering about that impact and--in terms of the ethics investigation.

SEABROOK: Julian Zelizer, do you know about the K Street Project?

Prof. ZELIZER: Oh, yes. The K Street Project was a key accomplishment or failure of the Republican revolution. And it was an attempt not only for Republicans after they gained control of the House and Senate in 1994 to say they would only do business with Republican-leaning interest groups, but also to kind of get former staffers on the Hill into jobs in the interest groups that they dealt with. And that's part of what the Abramoff and Scanlon scandal is about. It's the K Street Project coming to life. So it was a very aggressive push between 1994 and 2004 to solidify the ties between money and politics. And I think that is actually a big--it's in many ways what we're talking about right now.

SEABROOK: Peter Overby, what kind of impact did it have?

OVERBY: It had a significant impact. The--what was going on was the Republicans looked at K Street and said, you know, `Why are all these corporations represented by former Democratic Hill staffers?' So the K Street Project was an effort to reverse, in a couple of years, a trend that had been going on for 40 years that the Democrats controlled Congress. And they had a fair amount of success with it and it also opens up questions about where the loyalties of these folks lie. You know, do you--if you're one of these lobbyists, are you more loyal to the trade association you represent or to your old patron back on Capitol Hill?

SEABROOK: We're talking about money and politics and ethics in Congress and how these two come together. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

If you'd like to join our conversation, call (800) 989-TALK or send us an e-mail at

Let's bring in Jean Bethke Elshtain now, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago. Also author of "Democracy on Trial." She joins us from her home in Nashville, Tennessee. How are you?

Professor JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN (University of Chicago): I'm OK. How are you?


Prof. ELSHTAIN: Great.

SEABROOK: Can we apply the same ethics standards to politicians as we do to doctors or teachers or other public officials?

Prof. ELSHTAIN: Well, no. I mean, I don't think that you can apply identical ethics because the quandaries, the ethical quandaries, that come up are going to differ from profession to profession, if you will. If a surgeon makes an error because he is under the influence of something at any given moment, that can lead to the death of a patient. So one wants rather strict scrutiny of the condition of medical personnel. It's rather different when you're dealing with people in Congress who could very well get happy, shall we say, on an occasion or two and not do terrible damage to the commonweal. So I think that we, appropriately, of course, expect no egregious criminal behavior from anyone who is engaged in any kind of activity that involves the public in one way or the other.

But when you're dealing with Congress, when you're dealing with any political body, it's very difficult, I think, to draw a bright line separating those activities that are part of hardball politics--and politics is a contact sport, as we all know--and those activities that cross some line into unethical or illegal behavior. And I also think that we shouldn't assume that the ethical and the legal are identical--not necessarily so. I think that as Americans we have a great enthusiasm for proliferating laws and codes and multiplying these many times over so that people can be in compliance with one and in violation of another and so on and so forth. And we tend to lurch, I think often--and if you look at the history of concerns with ethics in political life, you can see this--from perhaps a lack of sufficient scrutiny and oversight to kind of wildly overdoing it and running up against a possible criminal evasion of just ordinary political activity.

For example--and then I'll stop with this example--it seems to me that in the Tom DeLay case--and I'm not prejudging it. That's a complicated case and so on, but clearly you got--a whole lot turns on the fact that you got an aggressive Democratic prosecutor who obviously has no love loss for Mr. DeLay, and it's also clear that whatever Mr. DeLay's alleged violations and the money front are concerned, that he has earned the ire of all sorts of people because of the redistricting that went on in Texas that favored the Republicans after having for so many years favored the Democrats. So we can't assume that what prosecutors are doing or what the media is doing is somehow some kind of entirely objective set of activities to make these bad boys behave. They're not--they're part of the political process, too. And...

SEABROOK: So let me ask...

Prof. ELSHTAIN: ...we need to evaluate all the principals involved.

SEABROOK: Let me ask you--we have to take a short break in just a second but strictly...

Prof. ELSHTAIN: Sure.

SEABROOK: you think there is a culture of corruption in Congress or is it just...

Prof. ELSHTAIN: No, I don't think there's any more of a culture of corruption in Congress than there ever has been. I think that when--in fact, arguably the standards are much higher now than they were at previous points in our history. I think that once you start proliferating cases it starts to sound like a rogues' gallery. But quite honestly I believe that the vast majority of people in Congress are very hard-working people with very hard-working staffs who could make a whole lot more money if they were in the private sector. So, you know, I don't see this--I don't see a crisis of any kind here.

SEABROOK: OK. We'll take a short break and we'll wrap up our conversation on ethics in Congress. We're also going to talk about the huge sums of money people donated to help Hurricane Katrina victims. Are the donations being used as they should?

I'm Andrea Seabrook. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


SEABROOK: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington.

Coming up tomorrow, nine Latin American countries are set to hold elections in 2006. Left-leaning politicians are already in office in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela, and another leftist appears to have clinched Bolivia's recent election. A look at the political impact on US policy in the region, that's the next TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Today we're talking about issues of ethics on Capitol Hill. Our guests are Peter Overby, NPR's correspondent covering power, money and influence; Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago; and Julian Zelizer--he's a history professor at Boston University. Let's go back to Jean Bethke Elshtain. A quick last question about politics.

Prof. ELSHTAIN: Sure.

SEABROOK: You were saying before the break that you don't think there is any more of a culture of corruption in Congress than there has been. So do you think that all of these calls of--these cries of a culture of corruption are more a political affront than anything else?

Prof. ELSHTAIN: Well, I think it probably comes more from a lack of historic context and historic perspective in the sense of what the history of Congress has been like. I think also there are certain words like `lobbyist,' you know, that immediately take on a kind of sinister connotation when we know that the churches--you know, the National Catholic Conference has lobbyists. The Girl Scouts have lobbyists. The trade unions have lobbyists. All kinds of NGOs have lobbyists. Environmental groups have lobbyists. So lobbying, in and of itself, I don't think, again, is an activity that we should cast an immediate sort of negative ethical canopy over as if it's by definition some kind of illicit activity. I think that there are certain temptations associated with it that have to do with money, obviously, that need to be scrutinized. But I think so much of the way we evaluate these things now just suggest that all of this is some deeply ingrained, entangled web of corruption, and I think that's far too--that's melodrama, that's not really factual.

SEABROOK: Julian Zelizer, I would imagine you don't quite agree.

Prof. ZELIZER: No. Look, I mean, I do agree that some of the problems we face today have been faced before, but that doesn't mean the problems are OK today. You know, we hope that we can move toward an improved system, and while all of politics isn't corrupt and it's not more corrupt than it used to be, there are bad apples. And I think some evidence has emerged that the boundaries might have been pushed by the Republican leadership, just as Democratic leaders had pushed it in the 1970s and '80s. And in those moments we need to scrutinize the system. And we shouldn't demonize Congress as an institution, but we certainly need to investigate whether these kind of boundaries have been crossed because, ultimately, the cost is to undermine the confidence of the public in the political system.


Prof. ZELIZER: And so that's where we are today.

SEABROOK: Julian Zelizer, history professor at Boston University, and, Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor social and political ethics at the University of Chicago, thank you both for joining us.

Prof. ELSHTAIN: Thank you.

Prof. ZELIZER: Thank you.

SEABROOK: Peter Overby, let's take one last call. We have Drew in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DREW (Caller): Hi. Thank you very much for taking my call.

SEABROOK: Great. What's your call?

DREW: My--first, just--I'm one of the--I guess you could call `the cynical majority' in that I view politicians at the congressional level as suspect no matter what. And you guys are talking a lot today about things in the past and current events. I was wondering if both of your guests could give a projection on what they see may or may not happen in the coming 10 years or so about resolving some of these ethical issues within Congress.

SEABROOK: Peter Overby.

OVERBY: Ooh. Well, there are, of course, plans being cooked up by various members of Congress to enact one reform or another, and, you know, the--it's a cyclical thing. There was a lobbying reform in the mid-'90s. There was campaign finance reform in 2001 and 2002. So the business of lobbying is coming more in to the daylight. That's one of the long-term trends here. And I think it's quite possible as a result of the Abramoff case, in particular, that there's going to be more disclosure of lobbying activities. And that goes back to kind of the broad historical view. There used to be no disclosure at all.

So one of the reasons that we are alarmed by what we see now is that we can see it. These things did not used to be disclosed at all. You know, 50 years ago, we wouldn't have known that Jack Abramoff was lobbying for the Indian tribes, let alone, you know, what he was charging them. And another technological kicker here, the investigators wouldn't have gotten his e-mails to see what he was telling his partner about their lobbying strategies. So we know a lot more in this age of information than we used to about how Washington works.

SEABROOK: OK. Thank you so much for joining us, Peter Overby, NPR's correspondent, covering power, money and influence. He joined us in Studio 3A.

OVERBY: Thanks for having me.

SEABROOK: And we'll talk more about the elections later this week. Stay tuned to TALK OF THE NATION.

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