“I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live,” Socrates once said. So stands the crux of survival in today’s Washington, where bribery and kickbacks, nepotism and self-dealing are the lifeblood of a durable political career. Despite the high-profile downfalls of congressmen Tom DeLay and Bob Ney, and the short-lived attention to ethics reform, corruption charges remain little more than a speed bump on the road to reelection. That the respected nonpartisan newspaper Congressional Quarterly predicts the following congressmen will win comfortably is a testament to the power of incumbency.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas)
Key Position: Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee
Key Legislation: 2005 Energy Policy Act
Key Beneficiary: The oil and gas companies that received $6 billion in subsidies from Barton’s energy act. The former oilman from Waco was also a leading advocate of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and of exempting oil companies from lawsuits over the toxic gasoline additive MTBE. Big Energy has pumped more than $1.84 million into Barton’s coffers over the past decade, more than for any other member of the House.
Key Moment: Last year, Barton launched an unprecedented congressional investigation into the work of Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley, and Malcolm Hughes, three leading university-based climate researchers who had called for action on global warming. Deemed harassment by science groups and intolerable by fellow Republicans such as Senator John McCain, the probe soon fizzled.
Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.)
Key Position: Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee
Key Legislation: 2005 Department of Defense appropriations bill
Key Beneficiary: Former staffer Letitia White. She’s been dubbed the “Queen of Earmarks” for her ability to lobby her old boss on behalf of defense contractors such as Trident Systems, which has reaped more than $12 million in federal contracts thanks in part to the congressman’s connections.
Key Moment: In 2003, White and Trident’s CEO bought a $1 million Capitol Hill town house and listed it as the address of the White- and Trident-funded Small Biz Tech PAC, which appears to exist mainly to funnel a $46,000 salary to Las Vegas wedding planner-cum-PAC director Julia Willis-Leon—Lewis’ stepdaughter. The FBI is investigating whether Lewis traded earmarks for illegal payments.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.)
Key Position: Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee
Key Legislation: 2001 Patriot Act
Key Beneficiary: Himself. Sensenbrenner ranks first among lawmakers in having private interests foot the bill for his travel costs—roughly $200,000 in the past six years. One highlight was a trip to Kazakhstan to watch a rocket launch.
Key Moment: During a June Judiciary Committee hearing on renewing the Patriot Act, Sensenbrenner became enraged at witnesses describing abuse at Guantanamo. He shut the meeting down by killing the lights, microphones, and C-SPAN feed and led his fellow Republicans out of the room.
Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)
Key Position: House Majority Whip
Key Legislation: Department of Homeland Security bill
Key Beneficiary: Altria lobbyist Abigail Perlman. In 2002, Blunt was dating Perlman (whom he later married) when he tried to slip a provision into the Department of Homeland Security bill that would have benefited the tobacco giant. Altria returned the favor by funneling close to $180,000 to PACs controlled by Blunt, according to Public Citizen. In the past two election cycles the company has also been one of the top contributors to his campaigns. In 2003, Blunt attached a rider to an Iraq War appropriations bill that benefited UPS—whose lobbyist just happened to be his son from a previous marriage.
Key Moment: In June 2003, Blunt co-signed a letter to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton opposing the casino aspirations of the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, whose operation would have competed with one run by the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, a client of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Around that time, Abramoff and his firm contributed $1,000 to Blunt’s PAC.
Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.)
Key Position: Member of the House Appropriations Committee
Key Legislation: Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development appropriations bills
Key Beneficiary: His bank account. Between 2000 and 2004, Mollohan’s personal net worth jumped from $562,000 to more than $6.3 million, a windfall he attributes to “a surge in real-estate values.” As the Washington Post pointed out in April, this explanation fails to address “how he came to make many of his lucrative investments in partnership with Laura Kuhns, his former aide who now runs the Vandalia Heritage Foundation”—a nonprofit Mollohan set up to oversee some of his earmark projects. Mollohan is under federal investigation for making misstatements on his personal financial disclosures and for funneling millions of dollars in earmarks to companies that have donated to his family foundation and other nonprofits he founded.
Key Moment: As details of his real estate deals emerged this spring, the “Prince of Pork” was forced to step down from his role as the ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee.