Thursday, August 24, 2006
I have found it difficult in the past several weeks to reach a conclusion as to what a citizen should do with respect to this fall’s forthcoming congressional elections. I am a Republican, intend to remain a Republican, and am descended from three generations of California Republicans, active in Merced and San Bernardino Counties as well as in the San Francisco Bay Area. I recently engaged in an unsuccessful effort to defeat the Republican Chairman of the House Resources Committee, Richard Pombo, in the 11th Congressional District Republican primary, obtaining just over 32 percent of the Republican vote against Pombo’s 62 percent. The observation of Mr. Pombo’s political consultant, Wayne Johnson, that I have been mired in the obsolete values of the 1970s—honesty, good ethics and balanced budgets, all rejected by today’s modern Republicans—is only too accurate.
It has been difficult, nevertheless, to conclude as I have that the Republican House leadership has been so unalterably corrupted by power and money that reasonable Republicans should support Democrats against DeLay-type Republican incumbents in 2006. Let me try to explain why.
I have decided to endorse Jerry McNerney and every other honorable Democrat now challenging those Republican incumbents who have acted to protect former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who have flatly reneged on their Contract With America promise in 1994 to restore high standards of ethical behavior in the House and who have combined to prevent investigation of the Cunningham and Abramoff/Pombo/DeLay scandals. These Republican incumbents have brought shame on the House, and have created a wide-spread view in the public at large that Republicans are more interested in obtaining campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists than they are in legislating in the public interest.
At the outset, let me say that in four months of campaigning I have learned that Jerry McNerney is an honorable man and that Richard Pombo is not. Mr. Pombo has used his position and power to shamelessly enrich his wife and family from campaign funds, has interfered with the federal investigation of men like Michael Hurwitz, he of the Savings & Loan frauds and ruthless clear-cutting of old growth California redwoods. Mr. Pombo has taken more money from Indian gaming lobbyist Jack Abramoff, his associates and Indian tribes interested in gaming than any other member of Congress, in excess of $500,000.
With his stated intent to gut the Endangered Species and Environmental Protection Acts, to privatize for development millions of acres of public land, including a number of National Parks, to give veto power to the Congress over constitutional decisions of the Supreme Court, his substantial contributions to DeLay’s legal defense fund, and most particularly his refusal to investigate the Abramoff involvement in Indian gaming and the exploitation of women labor in the Marianas, both matters within the jurisdiction of his committee, Mr. Pombo represents all that is wrong with the national government today.
It is clear that the forthcoming campaign will be a vicious one, with Mr. Pombo willing to stretch the truth as he has in the past with respect to the elderberry beetle, levee breaks, his steadfast opposition to veterans’ health care, including prosthetics research for amputees from Iraq and other wars, the impact on Marine lives of endangered species protection at Camp Pendleton and other issues.
That Mr. Pombo lied in testimony to the Senate in 1994 is an accepted fact. He testified that the US Fish & Wildlife Service had designated his farm near Tracy as habitat for the endangered California kit fox. This was untrue, as Pombo admitted a few months later when questioned over public television, an agency for which he recently voted to cut federal funds. Such a man should not be allowed to be in charge of the nation’s public lands and waterways, a position to which he was elevated by Tom DeLay.
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Some 18 months ago, my former law partner, Lewis Butler, an assistant secretary of HEW in the Nixon Administration and subsequently the distinguished chair of California Tomorrow and the Plowshares Foundation, and I initiated an effort we called The Revolt of the Elders. All of us were retired and in the latter years of Social Security entitlement. Most of us were Republicans who had served in the Congress or in former Republican administrations with men like Gerry Ford, John Rhodes, Bob Michel, Elliot Richardson, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and the president’s father, George H. W. Bush, all men of impeccable integrity and ethics.
We had become appalled at the House Republican leadership’s decision in early 2005 to effectively emasculate the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct by changing the rules to protect Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay had been admonished three times by the committee for abuse of power and unethical conduct. It was our hope to persuade Speaker Hastert and the Republican leadership, of which Northern California Congressman Richard Pombo and John Doolittle were prominent members, to rescind the rules changes and to act in accord with the promise of high ethical standards contained in Speaker Gingrich’s Contract With America which brought the Republicans majority control in 1994. We failed.
Letters to the speaker from an increasing number of former Republican Members were ignored and remained unanswered. Then, only a few weeks ago, the House leadership refused to allow even a vote on what could have become an effective independent ethics monitor. Instead of repudiating the infamous “Pay to Play” program put in place by DeLay to extract maximum corporate campaign contributions to “Retain Our Majority Party” (ROMP), DeLay’s successor as majority leader called for a continuance of the free luxury airline trips, mammoth campaign contributions to the so-called “Leadership PACs” and the continuing stalemate on the Ethics Committee.
Strangely, even after the guilty pleas of Abramoff, Duke Cunningham and a number of former House staffers who had been sent to work for Abramoff and other lobbyists, the Republican House leaders don’t see this as corruption worthy of investigation or change. That their former staff members and Abramoff were granted preference in access to the legislative process is not seen as a problem if it helps Republicans retain control of the House. It reminds one of the contentions of Haldeman and Ehrlichman long ago that the national security justified wire-tapping and burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office and the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate.
I have therefore reluctantly concluded that party loyalty should be set aside, and that it is in the best interests of the nation, and indeed the future of the Republican Party itself, to return the House to temporary Democrat control, if only to return the House to the kind of ethics standards practiced by Republicans in former years.
I say reluctantly, having no great illusion that Democrats or any other kind of politician will long resist the allure of campaign funds and benefits offered by the richest and most profitable of the Halliburtons, oil companies, tobacco companies, developers and Indian gaming tribes whose contributions so heavily dominate the contributions to Congressmen Pombo and Doolittle.
As an aside, it seems to me that the Abramoff and Cunningham scandals make it timely for the Congress to consider public matching funds for small contributions to congressional candidates, the same type of system we adopted some time ago for presidential elections. It may be cheaper for the taxpayer to fund congressional elections than to bear the cost of lobbyist-controlled legislation like the recent Medicaid/Medicare drug bill.
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There is another strong reason, I believe, for Republicans to work this fall for Democrat challengers against the DeLay-type Republicans like Pombo and Doolittle. That is the clear abdication by the House over the past five years of the Congress’ constitutional power and duty to exercise oversight over abuses of power, cronyism, incompetence and excessive secrecy on the part of the executive branch. When does anyone remember House Committee hearings to examine the patent failures of the Bush Administration to adhere to laws like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, or the arrogant refusal of the President to accept the congressionally-enacted limits on torture of prisoners? When has the House used its subpoena power to compel answers from administration officials? Why have there been no hearings into the Cunningham bribery affair or Abramoff’s Indian gaming and exploitation of women labor?
When three former congressional staff aides join Abramoff in pleading guilty to attempting to bribe congressmen, and a fourth takes the Fifth Amendment rather than answer Senator McCain’s questions about his relationship with Abramoff and Indian gaming, all five having given substantial campaign contributions to Mr. Pombo, would it not seem reasonable to ask him to conduct an oversight committee hearing?
For all of these reasons, I believe and hope that the Republicans who voted for me on June 6 will vote for Mr. McNerney and against Mr. Pombo.
The checks and balances of our Constitution are essential to our system of government, as is the public faith that can be obtained only by ethical conduct on the part of our elected leaders.
If the Republicans in the House won’t honor these principles, then the Democrats should be challenged to do so. And if they decline to exercise that privilege, we can turn them out too. I hope by working as a simple private citizen, to rekindle a Republican sense of civic duty to participate in the electoral process this fall. The goal of The Revolt of the Elders was and is to educate voters to the need for a return of ethics and honesty in Washington. That goal was right 18 months ago, and seems even more worthwhile today.
PETE MCCLOSKEY served in the US House of Representatives from 1967 to 1983. He is the co-author of the Endangered Species Act. Having lived for years in Woodside, Calif. (near Palo Alto) he moved last year to San Joaquin County, to challenge Rep. Richard Pombo.