Shields and Brooks Discuss Abramoff Guilty Plea, Alito Hearing
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Mark, what rumbles do you hear as a result of the Abramoff pleas?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, it must be — on the Richter Scale it must be a nine. To watch the White House of George W. Bush scurry to distance the president, for example, from this convicted felon fixer, confessed felon fixer, and return $6,000 that he got from Jack Abramoff and his wife in 2000, a client, with no mention of the $100,000 that he raised for the Bush-Cheney campaign –
JIM LEHRER: There’s a list in the daily Hotline of about 100 members of Congress who gave money back too.
MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. That’s right. But they all seem to be reminiscent of former predecessor of Bush’s in the White House who denied an illicit relationship with a White House intern, you know, very emphatically. They all seem to be saying I did not have political relations with that man, Jack Abramoff. I have got to tell you, I mean, you know, it is locking the door after the horse has been stolen, all the favors have been given.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with the consensus next door just now, that there’s going to be a timeout, as Mr. LaRocco said?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think so. I just had lunch in a fancy restaurant and I could hear my echo because there was nobody else at lunch. No lobbyists were there –
JIM LEHRER: You were paying for it.
DAVID BROOKS: Of course. I had six waiters waiting on me. It’s having a big effect. I disagree with Mark that the White House is heavily involved. I think they did a good job of shoving off Abramoff when he came up to them.
DAVID BROOKS: But the big effect is that it’s been a spring time for change. All the people, and especially Republicans who are watching this thing develop, finally are beginning to take some action. And the most important action they’ve already begun taking is getting rid of Tom Delay
It’s pretty clear among House Republicans that they want him out, and there’s going to be an election. And there’s a contest, there’s already jockeying going on of who’s going to replace him — Roy Blunt, John Boehner — and then the other thing that’s happening across the political spectrum, a really acceleration of the reform ideas from Jeff Flake, from Arizona, a Republican, from Rahm Emanuel, from Barney Frank; just a whole bubbling up of reform ideas.
JIM LEHRER: One at a time, Mark. You agree that Delay is gone, as far as being the leader –
MARK SHIELDS: Delay is gone. There’s no question about it.
JIM LEHRER: There was even a petition today –
MARK SHIELDS: Jeff Flake of Arizona, Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, pushing for a vote. That’s one of the reasons Congress was not returning until the 31st of January, was the expectation that Tom Delay might have his legal troubles in Texas behind him. Then he could come back and return to his rightful position as majority leader.
JIM LEHRER: And there’s this petition it says go ahead and have a vote get the thing over with.
MARK SHIELDS: The National Review called for removal, you had the Wall Street Journal editorial page today. You had Newt Gingrich, former speaker. I mean, the die is cast. Let’s just be very candid about this, Jim. Tom Delay was the personification of the problem. His leaving does not take the problem with him. Tom Delay passionate cared about one thing; that’s why he came into politics; he cared deeply and fiercely about the elimination of all regulation, governmental regulation. I’m talking health, safety, environmental.
We can argue that presidents of both parties have been enforced environmental laws that have removed 99 percent of the lead from the air, have saved the Great Lakes, have made the air our children breathe better. Tom Delay does not believe that. Tom Delay believes that it’s an onerous burden.
JIM LEHRER: So how does that tie in to this?
MARK SHIELDS: It dies into — what he married, when he came — the first thing he did when he became majority whip in 1995 was to convene a meeting in his office: Pharmaceutical, tobacco, securities, health insurance lobbyists — and say you are our team now and I am committed to removing regulations.
They don’t like regulations. They don’t want regulations, most of these businesses don’t. And Tom Delay, it wasn’t the first time the nexus between lobbying and politics and money came together. Tom Delay raised to it a different level.
JIM LEHRER: All right. First of all, do you agree with that?
DAVID BROOKS: Not really, no. Tom Delay was not against regulation; he was for the elimination of all Democrats. And so I think it was mostly partisanship. By the way, businesses like regulations that crush their competitors, by the way.
So he wanted to get rid of the Democrats. Then, here, I begin to agree with Mark, that the problem is not Delay, it’s DeLayism. And DeLayism is, (a), the merging of K Street with the Hill, which Delay was really in charge of. And the second thing was the frantic money chase. The idea was that you contribute to the party, you qualify for chairmanship by out raising everybody else and giving the money around to people on your team that.
So that was the real problem. And so, to me, the fundamental problem that they have to deal with is not the lobbying, not $50 dinners, I could care less about that. It’s the fundamental incentives that Delay and Abramoff in a much worse way took advantage. And those incentives revolve around two things: Earmarks where an individual can control a federal contract worth 100 million bucks. There’s bound to be graft when you got individual members.
And second, moving outside the rules: When they can put in a little spending provision, after the conference report is done at 2:00 in the morning and nobody ever sees that. Then you are bound to get graft because those two big problems in the process.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think those things will now fall as a result of the Abramoff case?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, the tough one and the big one is the earmarks, these little pork barrel projects which have exploded.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Well, back to my point, which was the leadership change that’s going to happen as a result of this, Delay, everybody agrees, Delay is gone. So what is going to happen in his place? Is Hastert going to remain speaker? Is the rest of the leadership going to remain in place? Or is it just Delay –
DAVID BROOKS: Well, personally, I think they should sweep the carpet and get some new blood. They’ve got a lot of young talent. But if I was betting, I’d say Hastert would remain, then I would bet on a guy named Roy Blunt, who’s been acting majority leader from Missouri, John Boehner from Ohio is the other likely candidate.
JIM LEHRER: What about the Democrats, Mark? Where do they come down on all of this? Have they been handling themselves well in this issue?
MARK SHIELDS: No, they haven’t. But this week, we mentioned last week that there was a real Democratic reform package put together by David Obey of Wisconsin, David Price of North Carolina, Tom Allen of Maine and Barney Frank of Massachusetts.
This week, it was revealed, that more than half the Democrats in the House have endorsed that package. And it does include many of the things that David was talking about: The votes and all the rest of it and cleanup. You have to have a bill — we voted on a 770-page budget bill in the last session, Jim. Nobody saw it. Nobody saw it. It wasn’t printed when they voted on it in the House and the Senate, so I mean, that sort of thing.
But I do come back to, I sound like Johnny one-note: The deregulation became central to this administration and to the Republicans at the time. I mean, I don’t think the West Virginia mine is an accident. The West Virginia mine, where we had 204 citations for violations and total fines paid of $14,000, including –
JIM LEHRER: You’re blaming that on Tom Delay?
MARK SHIELDS: I’m blaming it on an attitude toward regulation that we don’t regulate business fiercely. We don’t try to interfere too strenuously. I don’t think there’s any question that when you’ve had 97 citations that threaten the life of miners according to those who are investigating, and the total fine amounts to $14,000, that isn’t even a slap on the wrist.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think of that?
DAVID BROOKS: That could be a problem, it’s not this problem though. This problem was caused by the explosion of earmarks from like 4,000 earmarks a year to 14,000 earmarks a year. It’s caused by, as Mark said, people in the middle of the night putting in a piece of spending which their lobbyists know about and they know about but nobody else knows about, and nobody can vote on. That I think is what has actually caused this problem.
And not only Abramoff is the extreme example. It’s Duke Cunningham is another extreme example, the California guy who was bribed. It’s the fevered raising of money, if you go into these restaurants, and then it’s the fevered putting these spending provisions in for special interests.
JIM LEHRER: Do both of you agree that the — some good could come of this, that the Abramoff thing is so severe, such a jarring thing, that they can’t — somebody is going — everybody has to do something about it, whether you are a Democrat or Republican, no matter where you are in the pecking order?
MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely. Jim, I mean, when we have had reforms, whether it was the abolition of corporate domination of our politics during the 20th Century, or the cleaning up of money after Watergate, I mean which did last for close to 20 years, I mean, it really did, it worked very well through four presidential elections.
Ironically the Republicans might be bailed out on this by John McCain. They despise John McCain; they loathe John McCain; John McCain has been the one Republican leading this reform charge on lobbyists in transparency and accountability. We know whom they’re talking to.
JIM LEHRER: The Alito hearings begin on Monday. What should we expect?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think the betting is he will be what he is. He’s sort of a nerdy guy who never makes broad statements. And so he will make narrow legalistic statements about individual decisions. I think the expectation is will be a lot of Democratic votes against, a lot of Democratic questions about executive power, and abortion, other things.
But I think the expectation is that he’ll get — keep most of the Republican votes, and you even hear Republicans saying let’s not get complacent about this. So the odds favor him. But it will be a lot bloodier than Roberts.
JIM LEHRER: A lot bloodier than Roberts?
MARK SHIELDS: John Roberts wasn’t a Democratic lawyer in Washington who had lunch with John Roberts. You couldn’t turn around without running into somebody saying, John Roberts, pretty good guy — I liked him, his family.
Nobody knows Sam Alito here. Obviously people who do know him think very highly of him. But, you know, this is an introduction for him, so it’s different. Plus it’s a different hearing. John Roberts was succeeding Bill Rehnquist. I mean, so that was conservative for conservative. Sam Alito is nominated to succeed the ultimate swing vote of the United States Supreme Court, Santa Sandra Day O’Connor.
JIM LEHRER: What about David’s point that the executive power issue, as a result of the NSA revelations and all that could –
MARK SHIELDS: McCain torture, I mean, they’re going to ask him about McCain torture, which the Bush administration has basically announced they’re not going to be held accountable to, even though the president signed it into law and endorsed it less than a month ago.
JIM LEHRER: But you don’t expect this thing to — the nomination is not in jeopardy as we sit here tonight, right?
DAVID BROOKS: I mean it’s not a loss by any means, but my expectation is people in his position are pretty good at this. And the individual witness, whoever he is, the nominee, has an advantage against the blowhard senators. So you have to expect he’ll do fine.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you both very much.