To avoid Abramoff fallout, take the Lieberman Pledge

Just do it!

That is the message from Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). Don’t wait for legislation or ethics rulings, just follow his example and voluntarily announce that you and your staff will not accept gifts, meals or travel from lobbyists or groups with interests before Congress.

Just do it!

That is the message from Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). Don’t wait for legislation or ethics rulings, just follow his example and voluntarily announce that you and your staff will not accept gifts, meals or travel from lobbyists or groups with interests before Congress.

As Lieberman says, “It’s time to try to set some examples here.”

Lieberman, the most ethical member of the Senate (this is not damning with faint praise!), is setting up the only way to avoid fallout from the Jack Abramoff scandal and get clean for election day.

The lobbyist scandal is penetrating deeply into the public consciousness. Only the House bank scandal loomed as important in the past three decades. Before that, one has to go to Abscam and Watergate to find parallels.

But, unlike the other scandals, this one has a clear partisan skew. Because it has absolute power, the Republican Party is proving Lord Acton’s admonition that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In the latest Fox News poll, voters, by 2-1, see the scandal as primarily implicating Republicans.

All the focus on legislation to correct lobbying abuses raises the central point: Those who pretend to oppose these practices have the option of simply not participating. As Nancy Reagan said: “Just say no.”

The Lieberman Pledge will catch on. In the elections of 2006, insurgents will happily take the pledge (they have likely never even met a lobbyist or accepted a ham sandwich from one) and incumbents will be hard-pressed not to follow. Pledges have a way of being contagious.

It is worth bearing in mind how the current corrupt system of lobbyist funding of trips and favors originated. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, taxpayers picked up the tab for most foreign travel by legislators. It was called junketing, and it was relatively clean — wasteful and hedonistic, but clean.

A lot of political consultants seized on these junkets and asked voters if they really wanted to pay for their congressmen and senators to take trips they could not afford to take themselves. Voters answered no, and many members went down to defeat.

The result was that no legislator would rack up a large public tab for travel. Enter the lobbyists who offered a way to take vacations without making the taxpayers pay for them.

But the political impact of this issue is as great now, with lobbyists in the spotlight, as it was then, with tax money involved. Its potency is enormous. Any member who faces a vaguely difficult fight for reelection had better find shelter behind the Lieberman Pledge.

In the always-entertaining game of raising public expectations of honesty versus the growing ingenuity of the politicians in fooling them, the newest battlefront is going to be earmarking. Once the debate over the line-item veto raged between the parties, but the greater and greater use of earmarking by members of Congress to pay off campaign contributors has made the line-item debate obsolete. Voters understand that earmarking is not to create jobs but to generate and reward campaign contributions.

So while legislators are considering pledges, they might want to follow the example of newly elected House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has refused to earmark appropriations bills. Voters are coming to understand that these special amendments are increasingly responsible for runaway federal spending, and they are no longer willing to reward it or even to tolerate it.

This scandal is not going away, nor will it be without electoral consequence. The response must come form the Republican leaders in the House and Senate. They must make sure that reforms keep pace with the exposures as the scandal deepens.

But no legislative action can replace the actions of individual legislators in taking the Lieberman Pledge.

Take it before it gets too late.

Morris, a former political adviser to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and President Bill Clinton, is the author of Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race.