Boosted By Abramoff Scandal, Democrats Still Need Plan, Message

There is a temptation for Congressional Democrats to become a one-trick pony in 2006 -- that is, they will try to ride the Jack Abramoff scandal all the way to Election Day as a strategy to regain control of the House and Senate.

That would be a mistake.

Certainly, the Abramoff- lobbying-influence scandal should be a part of the Democrats' message, but it can’t be their only message.

It is clear that "Abramoff" is a Republican scandal. The vast majority of Congressmen and staffers who ultimately will face criminal charges will be Republicans. In fact, there may be no Democrats indicted for dealings with Abramoff -- a longtime Republican Party operative.

However, at least one Democrat, Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana, may face criminal charges in the months ahead for matters involving official misconduct. His problems apparently are not linked to Abramoff. Republicans will make hay when that happens.

Further, even though Democrats have developed a strong lobby reform package, they ceded the high ground to House Republicans on one important matter – banning all privately financed travel for members of the House and Senate. The New York Times reported that Democrats failed to include such a ban because of the opposition of some Democratic senators. Since each chamber makes its own rules, House Democrats should consider supporting such a ban even if Senate Democrats won’t go along.

So what should Democrats add to their anti-corruption message as they prepare for November elections?

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin took a stab at this recently in appearances at the National Press Club in Washington. They promised initiatives on education, health care, jobs and a stronger America.

Let me offer my suggestions.

Energy independence: The Republican Congress recently passed legislation with subsidies for major energy companies. Democrats should go way beyond this approach. We need legislation encouraging the production and purchase of more fuel efficient cars, significant investment in development of alternative energy sources and increased conservation measures. We will soon be in a death struggle with developing economies in China and India for scarce oil supplies. The time to act is now.

Competence in Government: The public doesn’t understand a lot of what goes on in Washington, but they do understand that our government failed miserably in the response to Hurricane Katrina and in the implementation of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit. The Republicans only answer is smaller government. The public expects government that can put one foot in front of another, regardless of its size.

Health Care: Both parties understand the significance of this issue, with more than 40 million Americans being without health insurance. The Republican response will be more tax deductions for the purchase of health care and wider use of medical savings accounts. That’s fine for people with enough disposable income to afford to purchase health care and then get some money back at the end of the year when they file their income tax returns. But what about everyone else? Democrats should propose letting small business employees and individuals buy into the relatively inexpensive insurance plan offered for federal civil service worker. That’s the plan that Congressmen can purchase for their own families.

Stronger America: Republicans are in deep denial about our Army being stretched to the breaking point by our involvement in Iraq, despite such a finding by a study commissioned by the Pentagon itself. Democrats should renew their call, made late last year, for expanding the size of the active duty Army. They should also recommend that the role of the National Guard be redefined to deal primarily with domestic natural disasters such as hurricanes.

Real Ethics Reform: Democrats should not only work to place limits on what lobbyists can do, but create a fully staffed office of public integrity in Congress. This office would have the power to both investigate allegations made against members of Congress and to recommend action to be taken by either Congressional ethics committees or the Department of Justice.

This office will need to have real independence and not be controlled by whoever happens to be in the majority at the time.

This is just a start. But Democrats should remember that when the Republicans took control of the House in 1994, they were not a one-trick pony. They pushed scandal and ethical issues, but they also had a detailed program about what they would do once they won. I didn’t agree with a lot of their program and they wound up not implementing much of it, but at least they had a plan.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel, and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

Respond to the Writer