Tuesday, November 21, 2006

THOMAS B. EDSALL: Same Old Party

Last Friday, the Republicans gave the Democrats a gift that will keep on giving: Roy Blunt of Missouri.

After an election repudiating the politics of Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay, Republicans elevated Blunt from the number three spot in the leadership to number two.

Roy Blunt embodies the insidious, half-legal corruption that has permeated the G.O.P. majority since 1995. Blunt’s election as minority whip, by a 137-to-57 margin, was a defiant Republican rejection of calls to clean up their act. Warnings by Blunt’s challenger, John Shadegg of Arizona — “We ceded our reform-minded principles in exchange for a ...tighter grip on power” — went unheeded.

In 1998, DeLay put Blunt on the leadership ladder, making him chief deputy whip. Blunt modeled himself on DeLay, creating an identical network of state and federal political committees that raised money from the same lobbyists, corporations and trade associations that financed what became known as DeLay Inc.

If one political operation captured the essence of DeLay’s leadership, it was the Republican takeover of Washington’s influence-peddling industry. This industry, grossing $2.36 billion last year alone, eagerly accommodated DeLay’s demands to replace Democratic lobbyists and association executives with Republicans. In a mutually rewarding relationship, lobbyists who financed DeLay Inc. wrote amendments and bills, while DeLay received a flood of cash to build a multimillion-dollar network of PACs. These committees lavished contributions, corporate jets and year-round entertainment on Republican House members, ensuring their loyalty, and channeled cash into local political parties, helping to win control of state legislatures that, in turn, gerrymandered districts to implement a long-term strategy of larger G.O.P. Congressional majorities.

In 2003, after DeLay moved up to majority leader and turned the so-called K Street Project over to him, Blunt promptly converted a legion of Republican lobbyists into an arm of the House whip operation. Lobbyists have always been close to Congress, under rule by either party. What DeLay and Blunt did was to sacralize this relationship. In doing so, they transferred a chunk of power from Capitol Hill to business interests.

This unholy alliance was a crucial factor in transforming the G.O.P. into an army of spenders whose earmarks, appropriations and tax cuts rivaled the government largess of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

In 2004, Blunt turned his lobbyist team loose to win passage of a bill eliminating a $50 billion corporate tax break that the World Trade Organization had ruled in violation of international agreements. These lobbyists inserted $143 billion worth of new corporate tax breaks, turning the bill into a Fortune 500 Christmas tree.

Blunt is not the easy target DeLay was. DeLay, a born-again Southern Baptist, by his own account had battled demon rum and the playboy life. Once he started down the path of righteousness, moralizing and sermonizing, he made enemies, painting a bull’s-eye on his back.

Blunt, by contrast, is bland, unctuous and adept at keeping a low profile. But there is plenty to see. After divorcing his wife of 35 years to marry a tobacco lobbyist, Abigail Perlman, he cleared his second marriage with the House Ethics Committee to get “a waiver of the limitations of the gift rule to allow me to accept gifts in connection with my wedding.”

Blunt unblushingly told the Heritage Foundation this month that Republicans “have allowed our efforts to defend traditional values to be defined as little more than a politically driven effort to appease ‘family groups.’ ”

For Blunt, the blurring of boundaries is a family tradition. His son Matt is the governor of Missouri. Another son, Andrew, is one of the state’s top lobbyists. Almost all Altria subsidiaries — Kraft, Miller Brewing, Philip Morris (remember Abigail Perlman) — hired Andy Blunt, along with other financial backers of Roy Blunt.

In Blunt, House Republicans have kept on display a top official reminding voters why they cast ballots for Democrats on Nov. 7. After winning the post of minority whip last week, Blunt declared that the Republicans had “come together ... frankly, to get rid of the bad habits that we may have developed in 12 years in the majority.” This is precisely the opposite of what they actually did, which was to affirm their bad habits. The burden on the Democrats will be to make the elusive Blunt a nationally recognized figure.

Thomas B. Edsall holds the Pulitzer-Moore Chair at Columbia University. He is a guest columnist this month.

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