Video: Congressional cesspool?

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updated 11/30/2005 4:14:17 PM ET 2005-11-30T21:14:17
TRANSCRIPT

Before resigning in shame, Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham seemed to be laughing all the way to the yacht club. 

Now, there are new details on just how deep the Dukester had his hand in the cookie jar.  Look at some of the payoffs he took for steering defense contracts to his local cronies:

  • A $200,000 condo in Arlington
  • $140,000 for the yacht
  • $35,000 for antiques
  • $13,000 towards the purchase of a Rolls Royce
  • $2,000 for his daughter's graduation party. 

The list goes on and on. 

You know, Duke Cunningham got caught, but the question many Americans are asking is, how deep is the congressional cesspool?  Six members are currently under investigation for possible crimes and ethics violations.  And some reports say the number could go as high as 60.  What in the heck is going on in the nation's capital? 

On Tuesday, Chellie Pingree.  president of Common Cause, and Jill Zuckman, chief congressional correspondent for "The Chicago Tribune," joined MSNBC's Joe Scarborough to discuss the issue.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

JOE SCARBOROUGH: Jill, let me start with you. You are up on the Hill, report on the Hill all the time.  How nervous are they on Capitol Hill that the lid is about to be blown off some of these investigations? 

JILL ZUCKMAN, CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE":  Well, you know what?  There are at least 17 other members with ties to the same defense contractor that was giving all those gifts to Randy Duke Cunningham.

So, everybody is kind of looking to each other, wondering, well, what were you doing?  Because the fact of the matter is people could be doing some of these things, and you wouldn't really know about it because nobody is watching them on Capitol Hill. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And it may expand out to wives, congressmen's wives. 

ZUCKMAN:  Exactly.  Exactly. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Aides.

ZUCKMAN:  It's possible. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Staff members.  Talk about that. 

ZUCKMAN:  Well, it's possible that contractors or lobbyists were either steering business to some of the congressional wives' own firms or just giving money to them on the side, as a way of influencing their spouses in Congress.  There are all sorts of things. 

The fact is, it's not just what Randy Duke Cunningham did.  You have got a congressman in Louisiana who had the FBI raid his home looking for documents related to a strange business deal in Nigeria.  You have got Jack Abramoff.  He's got ties all through the House.  I mean, who knows how many House Republicans have shaken hands with that guy and are now going to be worried that they are under scrutiny?

SCARBOROUGH:  And, of course, they are finding $100,000 bucks in people's freezers.  ... Let me ask you, Chellie, about how sleazy the system has become; 1994, I get elected, along with other Republicans, who promise to clean up the system.

But I just jotted down a couple things about how the system works now.  These congressmen make the rules now.  They don't follow the rules, because they don't have to, because nobody in this club hardly ever gets called up on charges, because you have got to be inside the club to actually file charges against somebody else inside the club.

So, you as an outsider, you can't file charges against them.  And because of that, it's basically, I'm OK, you're OK.  And the perfect example, Chellie, Randy Duke Cunningham wasn't even brought up on ethics charges before he went down in flames yesterday. 

Talk about how corrupt this system has become. 

CHELLIE PINGREE, PRESIDENT, COMMON CAUSE:  Well, you put your finger on it, and you were right there.  You were there when the Republicans came into Congress and said they were going to clean it up.  They found the problems, but, unfortunately, at the same time, they said to outside groups like us, Common Cause, that used to file ethics violations on Republicans or Democrats, anybody who was stepping out of line, that stopped. 

There were no outside complaints anymore, and then suddenly there became this truce between the Republicans and the Democrats.  It went on for seven years, and basically both parties agreed not to file on each other.  They got this unique system, so outsiders can't complain.  The rules of the body are that they are meant to police themselves, but, as you said, here we got Duke Cunningham.  He is going to jail, and nobody even filed an ethics complaint on him.  And there was no internal ethics investigation. 

As you know, under this leadership in Congress, they basically dismantled the system.  They had an internal plan for a while to pass a rule that said, if you were indicted in leadership, you didn't have to step down.  Now, clearly, that was because some people thought that Tom DeLay would be indicted, and, lo and behold, he was.  They weren't able to pass the rule, so he is going to have to step down. 

But it it's just gotten downright creepy.  You don't want to open the newspaper in the morning, because, as you say, you don't know who is going to be on this list next. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Oh.  It's so sleazy.  The thing is, everybody needs to know across America -- and, of course, they already know in Washington -- it's only going to get worse, because prosecutors are now squeezing a former staff member of DeLay.  He is going to be talking.  And I think we could see 60 congressmen under investigation.

A lot of people's careers could go up in flames over the next six months to a year.  And I want to talk about-let's talk about a bigger problem.  Doesn't matter whether it's Republicans or Democrats. 

Jill, talk about the sense of entitlement that so many of these congressmen feel.  I remember one time hearing Fred Thompson, after he just became a senator, making a joke in front of an audience, saying, you know, I just don't get this Washington thing.  Just last week, I actually accidentally spent some of my own money. 

SCARBOROUGH:  I mean, when you are in Congress, they pay for your meals.  You never have to drive a car.  I mean, there is a sense of entitlement.  And the longer you are there, the more you think people owe you Rolls Royces, mansions, condos, yachts.  I mean, talk about that part of the story. 

ZUCKMAN:  Well, you experienced it, Joe.  You get to Capitol Hill, there's an elevator operator there to push the buttons for you. 

There are people there to hold the doors open for you.  You have staff to drive you around town.  You will never have to drive a car, and if you play your cards right, you will never have to pay for a meal, because there's always a lobbyist or someone there who wants to buy you breakfast, who wants to buy you lunch, who wants to take you out to dinner and to drinks, and maybe bend your ear a little bit on how they would like you to vote on a certain bill. 

You could never spend a penny in Washington, D.C.

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes.  No doubt.

ZUCKMAN:  And it's no surprise that after a while, they start to think you know, some members might start to think they are entitled to something more. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You are exactly right.  ... We are going to have you all back, because we are going to be following this story an awful lot in the coming days and weeks.  It's going to get bigger and bigger. 

Friends, it's the truth.  I was in Congress for almost eight years.  Most of that time, I hardly ever opened a door or drove a car.  I was so out of touch that, when I came back to the real world, I remember the first week I was driving my car, I almost ran it off the road like three or four times.  You really do.  It is another world.  And unless you are disciplined, you can slip and make some bad, bad mistakes. 

I never, ever came close, though, never did.  And there are a lot of great people up on the Hill that haven't followed Duke Cunningham and these other 60 down this sleazy, sleazy path. 

Catch 'Scarborough Country' each weeknight at 10 p.m. ET

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