It used to be said that the moral arc of a Washington career could be divided into four parts: idealism, pragmatism, ambition and corruption. You arrive with a passion for a cause, determined to challenge the system. Then you learn to work for your cause within the system. Then rising in the system becomes your cause. Then, finally, you exploit the system -- your connections in it, and your understanding of it -- for personal profit.
And it remains true, sort of, but faster. Even the appalling Jack Abramoff had ideals at one point. But he took a shortcut straight to corruption. On the other hand, you can now trace the traditional moral arc in the life of conservative-dominated Washington itself, which began with Ronald Reagan's inauguration and marks its 25th anniversary in January. Reagan and Co. arrived to tear down the government and make Washington irrelevant. Now the airport and a giant warehouse of bureaucrats are named after him.
By the 20th anniversary of their arrival, when an intellectually corrupt Supreme Court ruling gave them complete control of the government at last, the conservatives had lost any stomach for tearing it down. George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" was more like an apology than an ideology. Meanwhile, Tom DeLay -- the real boss in Congress -- openly warned K Street that unless all the choice lobbying jobs went to Republicans, lobbyists could not expect to have any influence with the Republican Congress. This warning would be meaningless, of course, unless the opposite was also true: If you hire Republican lobbyists, you and they will have influence over Congress. And darned if DeLay didn't turn out to be exactly right about this.
No prominent Republican upbraided DeLay for his open invitation to bribery. And bribery is what it is: not just campaign contributions but the promise of personal enrichment for politicians and political aides who play ball for a few years before cashing in.
When Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham pleaded guilty this week to accepting a comic cornucopia of baubles, plus some cash, from defense contractors, the vast right-wing conspiracy acted with impressive speed and forcefulness to expel one of its most doggedly loyal loudmouths and pack him off to a long jail term. Even Bush, whose affable capacity for understanding and forgiveness on the personal level is one of his admirable qualities, seized an unnecessary opportunity to wish the blackguard ill. There was no talk of "sadness" -- the usual formula for expressing sympathy without excusing guilt.
This astringent response would be more impressive if the basic facts about Cunningham's corruption hadn't been widely known for months. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported in June that a company seeking business from the Pentagon had bought Cunningham's Southern California house from him, held it unoccupied briefly and sold it -- in the hottest real estate market in human history -- for a $700,000 loss. You didn't need to know that Duke's haul included two antique commodes to smell the stench. Yet all the Republican voices now saying that Cunningham deserves his punishment were silent until he clearly and unavoidably was going to get it.
Like medieval scholastics counting the angels on the head of a pin, Justice Department lawyers are struggling with the question of when favors to and from a member of Congress or a congressional aide take on the metaphysical quality of a corrupt bribe. The brazenness of the DeLay-Abramoff circle has caused prosecutors to look past traditional distinctions, such as that between campaign contributions and cash or other favors to a politician personally. Or the distinction between doing what a lobbyist wants after he has taken you to Scotland to play golf and promising to do what he wants before he takes you to Scotland to play golf.
These distinctions don't really touch on what's corrupt here, which is simply the ability of money to give some people more influence than others over the course of a democracy where, civically if not economically, we are all supposed to be equal. So where do you draw the line between harmless favors and corrupt bribery?
It's not an easy question if you're talking about sending people to prison. But it's a very easy question if you're just talking: The answer is that it's all corrupt bribery. People and companies hire lobbyists because it works. Lobbyists get the big bucks because their efforts earn or save clients even bigger bucks in their dealings with the government. Members of Congress are among the world's greatest bargains: What is a couple of commodes compared with $163 million worth of Pentagon contracts?
Perhaps conceding more than he intended, former Democratic senator John Breaux, now on K Street, told the New York Times that a member of Congress will be swayed more by 2,000 letters from constituents on some issue than by anything a lobbyist can offer. I guess if it's a lobbyist vs. 1,900 constituents, it's too bad for the constituents. That seems fair.