Congress for sale

by Dave Danforth, Aspen Daily News Columnist
Dave Danforth is on assignment, so we are running one of his past columns. This one originally appeared January 8, 2006.

Congress for sale,” announces the voice. “Which service?”

“The bargain basement,” I say evenly.

“Jeanette here,” a second voice says. “Do you have an order number?”

“This is the wave of the future?” I ask.

“For anything in which we make a market,” Jeanette answers. “Favors for the banking industry have been popular. We have a number of members who have given us good pricing for their votes.”

“Isn’t that illegal?” I ask.

“Not since the bribery scandal broke,” Jeanette says. “An elite bipartisan group decided to eliminate the middlemen. We froze out the lobbyists. Now, you can buy favors directly from your Congress.”

“Must be expensive,” I note.

“You might be surprised,” Jeanette says. “Under the old system, you had to find a lobbyist, who’d get a Congressman or Senator to carry your water. Now, we have a number of younger members who will introduce and push a bill in exchange for an affordable contribution. The free market at work.”

“So if I want a law allowing an industry to get some breaks, this is the place to go?”

“Exactly. You used to have to make a campaign contribution to get your work done. But we found that most voters are cynical. They understand already that it’s pay-to-play around here. They just didn’t like the secrecy. So we’re now selling our product openly.”

“What if I’m a shady high-fee mortgage outfit that wants prosecutors to keep away?” I ask.

“Just happened,” Jeanette remarks. “The industry had to corral Congressman Bob Ney. He got a campaign contribution and then coincidentally introduced a bill which would soften state regulations on some of the less savory tricks played on borrowers.”

“Congressman Ney,” I think aloud. “Republican? Same dude just named anonymously in the Jack Abramoff indictment? Says he got duped into inserting a negative note into the Congressional record for one of Abramoff’s opponents?”

“One and the same,” she says. “Now, instead of arranging that yourself, you just call here. We fix you up with any one of 50 or 75 members who will introduce that bill. Then, we find a co-sponsor of the opposite party, and we’re there. Customer service, fair price.

“What about doing what’s right?”

“We still have a few fossils who actually believe that’s the way it should work,” Jeanette notes. “But most folks understand this is where you go when you want to get favors. Sure, we still have a few items like the Patriot Act, which is more about politics and show than money. But we’re the ultimate business fixers.”

“Hasn’t the average citizen always believed he or she could get hold of his Congressman or Senator and get something done?” I press.

“This place has always been for sale, and everyone knows it,” Jeanette says. “It’s just that members got tired of constantly raising money. They’d lean on their staffs to subtly remind constituents a contribution was expected. We figured with an open, published market, we could stimulate business, and let members have more time to play golf.”

“So if I led an Indian tribe that wanted to stop another tribe from opening a competing casino, this is a better way to do it than pay off Jack Abramoff?”

“Presto,” Jeanette says proudly. “We have 37 members who will put in a call to the interior secretary to stop the competitor. And you wouldn’t get bilked out of millions like Abramoff’s casinos did.”

“I don’t have to arrange a luxury golfing trip to Scotland for Congressman Ney?” I ask. “I don’t have to open a restaurant to host fundraisers? I don’t have to line up corporate suites for Redskins’ games?”

“For a premium price, we arrange the extras,” Jeanette says. “But now, Congress has outsourced the business of influence.”

“What about tax breaks?” I ask.

“Much easier,” she says. “No more Christmas trees.”

“Christmas is gone?” I exhale.

“It used to be that once Congress began working on a tax cut, it was like hunting season began,” Jeanette notes. “Every industry would be after their own private tax break. So the bill had hundreds of ornaments. A Christmas tree.”

“Done?” I push.

“You want a special tax break, we sell them right here,” she notes. “A freshman could almost do it now. They don’t have to wrangle any more, exchanging favors. It’s all arranged in advance.”

“How do you get around the bribery laws?” I ask.

“Same way we’ve been doing it for years,” Jeanette answers. “They’d frown on a specific quid pro quo in exchange for money in someone’s pocket, as opposed to a campaign contribution. That’s why it got dicey for Abramoff. He bought off Congressmen by sticking their wives on the payroll. We just went to the Justice Department and asked them for guidance. Got them to work with us. They’re made of good Republican cloth. We have ground rules, but nothing we can’t live with.”

“There’s just something that doesn’t quite seem right,” I conclude. “I call here and I can buy a law?”

“You used to have to hire a lobbyist to work the cloakrooms,” Jeanette says. “You paid them, and they quietly named the required contribution. This is cleaner and cheaper. We have a reserve fund to pay the lawyers.”

“Nothing illegal?” I prod.

“Your Congress for sale, at an efficient price,” Jeanette says soothingly. “It’s the American Way.”

The writer ( is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.