L.A. Times Brownstein on Indian Gaming Money and Abramoff

The LA Time's Ronald Brownstein got it partly right when he wrote about the rush to return Indian gaming contributions in his column yesterday:

Sending back the tribes' money isn't only silly, it's destructive to the cause of reforming Washington. It perpetuates the fiction that "bad" contributions can be segregated from "good" contributions in some orderly fashion that allows politicians to raise millions without compromising their independence. ...

[T]he vast majority of contributions legislators in both parties received from Abramoff's Indian clients looks no different, legally or even morally, than the money they collect from all other interests jostling on Capitol Hill. That's why the rush to refund the money is so misguided. By returning the Indian money, the recipients are trying to claim vigilance against suspect contributions.

But political money doesn't sort itself into black and white categories of appropriate and inappropriate; much of it, like the money from the tribes, is gray. It usually comes not with explicit demands but with implied expectations that every legislator must weigh. Is the Indian money really more suspect than the massive pharmaceutical contributions that influenced a prescription drug law that barred Medicare from bargaining for lower drug prices? In practice, the choices are not as clear-cut as legislators imply by returning the Indian dollars while keeping so many other donations that could provoke similar ethics questions.

Ok, we're with you so far, Mr. Brownstein. But then you fall into the trap that Micah wrote about earlier today, arguing that no reform will work. Yes, it is important to vote the rascals out, as you state, "the surest way for Americans to discourage elected officials from providing undue favors to special interests is to vote out some of those who do." We're with you there. But we also need to replace our current system with one that doesn't put special interest donors in a more important position than voters. We need some structural reform in addition to Brownstein's version of "electoral reform."