Guests: Joe Biden, Mike DeWine, Dick Armey, Tony Coelho, David Dreier, Anne Kornblut, Karen Tumulty
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Tonight, Senator Joe Biden, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, challenges the value of confirmation hearings to The Supreme Court. Like the ones underway for Judge Samuel Alito. So are they a waste of time? Let‘s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I‘m Chris Matthews. In the second day of Senate hearings, Supreme Court nominee Judge Alito said no president is above the law, even in a time of war, and he‘d deal with the issue of abortion with an open mind. Those are his words.
We‘ll talk to Senator Joe Biden and Senator Mike DeWine in a moment. And later, another shoe has dropped in the Abramoff Congressional corruption scandal. The Republican lobbying firm owned by Tom DeLay‘s former chief of staff is closing its doors because of its close ties to convicted felon and political pariah, Jack Abramoff.
Plus, DeLay is done for. But the race for House majority leader is just getting started. We‘ll talk to California Congressman David Dryer. First, the Alito confirmation hearings. Democratic senator Joe Biden is a member of The Judiciary Committee, a former chairman, who questioned Judge Alito earlier today.
MATTHEWS: Senator, what did you make of Judge Alito‘s performance in his first day of testimony?
SEN. JOE BIDEN, (D-DE): Well, you know, these hearings don‘t generate much of anything any more, Chris. When the—you know, it‘s pretty well staged, there‘s a refusal to answer, you know, the real questions people want to know about.
But what I did, what came through, in all the close calls, this guy basically rules for the big guy, and on discrimination cases, he sets the bar as ten of his colleagues in the court said, that if you took his standard for what constitutes discrimination, you would eviscerate Title Seven, which as you know is an anti-discrimination law.
He seems to be pretty solidly conservative, pretty far on the right side of the agenda, not an unreasonable guy, a decent man. But he has, you know, I mean, and some of his explanations are—I find them puzzling.
MATTHEWS: Do you find him an honest man in terms of his questioning and answering today, honest?
BIDEN: Well, I find him to be almost coached enough that he - he‘s reluctant to really give you, you know, the whole reason for things.
MATTHEWS: How can a guy who‘s quoted as saying Judge Robert Bork, who was rejected by your committee and by the Senate, and called him one of the greatest nominees if not the greatest nominee of the century, the 20th century, and then back off that before your committee today and say, oh well, I supported him because Reagan supported him?
Is that consistent? I mean, is that honest? It doesn‘t strike me as reasonably honest.
BIDEN: It doesn‘t—it doesn‘t ring a chord of sincerity with me. It‘s the same way with his job application. In 1985, he said well, I was only 35 years old. You and I were in positions of responsibility, when we were 35, we were held accountable for.
He said the only reason I said I was a part of the Concerned Alumni at Princeton was it having to do with R.O.T.C. or something. I said well, did you know that Senator Frist and Senator Bradley disassociated themselves from that group back in those days and there was a great hubbub about all of this and he said no, no, I really wasn‘t aware of that. Now he—maybe, maybe he‘s the absent minded professor. I don‘t know.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, I‘m watching it in my office so it‘s easier than the pressure you guys are under with all the pressure you guys are under with the cameras on you, Dianne Feinstein asked him where he stood on Roe v. Wade and women‘s health and of course that‘s the big factor between liberals and conservatives, should a women‘s health be an issue that allows her to choose an abortion.
Instead of answering it, it was one of those brilliant political answers, he said, that‘s clearly the case law or the case history. In other words, he wasn‘t saying anything. He was just saying that‘s been the way cases have been decided. It was a definitional answer. It didn‘t say where he stood.
BIDEN: That‘s exactly right. The same way, if you recall, when he was asked by Senator Kohl about reapportionment. He said well, everybody accepts that. Well, at the time he praised Bork. Bork is a very brilliant guy. Bork had an intellectually persuasive reason for saying one man, one vote was a bad idea, he said that the court went way beyond what The Constitution allowed him to do.
Instead of saying, well, you know, I disagree with Judge Bork‘s reasoning as to how he arrived, he said, I disagree with Judge Bork on a lot of things and by the way, one man, one vote is set of law.
I mean, it‘s a little disingenuous I think, and the thing yesterday, I said in my opening statement that the idea that a Supreme Court nominee somehow, in any way, jeopardizes his or her independence by telling them what they think on these big issues, that would disqualify sitting Supreme Court justices who go on television programs, on cable, and say what they think about issues, who come before us in the United States Senate, in a collegial setting of a caucus and tell us what they think.
I mean, they don‘t—no one says they‘re compromising their independence. This has just sort of become—I don‘t know, I‘m not sure there‘s much value to these hearings anymore. I think maybe we should go back to the old days where you just debated them on the floor of the United States Senate. And said here‘s what he wrote, here‘s what he said, here‘s what I think about that. And let the other side argue contrary and that would either—that would kind of force them to come out and say what they thought.
MATTHEWS: We like to say, Senator, because it seems right, that you can‘t get honest testimony from torturing somebody. This is a different degree of course, but do you get honest testimony from somebody under the lights who‘s told that you‘d better get yourself 60 votes or you‘re not going to be confirmed because there will be a filibuster, so to get 60 votes, you have to hold on to at least five Democrats and here‘s the way you do it? And Arlen Specter.
So you have to be vaguely confusing about abortion rights, because that will keep Specter on base, and you‘ve got to make sure you can get at least five conservative Democrats and you‘re home free. It doesn‘t matter what the other guys think. It doesn‘t matter what you think, Senator. You‘ll probably vote against him and Ted Kennedy will vote against him. So all the game is get me 40, don‘t get me 60, isn‘t that the game?
BIDEN: I think that‘s true and that‘s the same way with Democratic nominees and that‘s why you make the large -- One of the things about the Bork hearings, Judge Bork felt very strongly about what he believed and ...
MATTHEWS: Was he the last honest man to testify in a confirmation hearing, because he told the truth and you guys bounced him for it. Now these guys come along slippery as greased pigs and you say they should be more honest, but the price of honesty is rejection. The benefit of dishonesty, of slipperiness is confirmation. Aren‘t you teaching these guys how to dance?
BIDEN: Well, I guess if a sense, that‘s true, Chris, but you know, one of the points here, the central point that I think that has not gotten across somehow over the years, is that the American people are entitled to know what people think we‘re going to go on the bench.
What goes on here in this great—there‘s a reason why, for example, we asked Justice Ginsberg, when she was before us, I said, if a state passed a law saying that under no circumstance could a woman have an abortion, would that be constitutional?
She said absolutely not, it would be unconstitutional. So she answered the question. Why did she answer it? You could argue along your reasoning, she answered it because she knows that‘s what the vast majority of the American people are.
She was comfortable giving an answer on a controversial issue, where she thought the vast majority of people were, but what would happen if she had said, yes, a state can pass such a law?
MATTHEWS: Here‘s the problem. Senator, we - a lot of people don‘t like illegal immigration, that‘s a lot of people too, say that the first act of a person coming in from the southland border is to break the law, that‘s a bad start for citizenship. You guys have set it up for the first act of a judge nominee for The Supreme Court is a lie and to say all these things and that‘s their entry in to national life. It‘s true. We come in
BIDEN: Well, look, I mean, there is as they say a dilemma here. The dilemma here is that we have to give our advice and consent and that‘s why I wasn‘t being facetious when I said earlier, this has become so much of what you‘ve said, I think it may be better just to let the record stand.
Don‘t even -
MATTHEWS: I think you‘re voting against him senator, because I watched you on the committee and our very concerned about civil rights, very concerned about it, and you showed that today, and you‘re a 60‘s guy in that sense, and I don‘t think you like his answers today.
BIDEN: That‘s true, I didn‘t like his answers today, because they didn‘t seem to me to be as consistent with how I think the law that we wrote should be applied. And look, Chris, the bottom line here is the reason why there‘s more interest in this guy is that the court is going to move in a different direction if he turns out to be as conservative as he appears to be, and that‘s a big deal.
MATTHEWS: Nobody ever loved Justice Sandra Day O‘Connor as much in her leaving.
BIDEN: By the way, that‘s true.
MATTHEWS: She looks awful good as she heads out the door.
BIDEN: Absolutely. It‘s evidence of the fact, how far to the right the court has moved when Sandra Day O‘Connor is the moderate on the court.
MATTHEWS: Teddy Kennedy‘s candidate. Thank you, Senator Biden, you‘re a great guy to come on. Thank you for coming on today, especially. Thank you Senator Joe Biden of Delaware.
MATTHEWS: Republican senator Mike DeWine of Ohio is also a member of The Judiciary Committee. Senator DeWine, do you share the same jaundiced view of these hearings, that they may not be getting to the truth that Senator Biden has just exhibited.
SEN. MIKE DEWINE, ® JUDICIARY CMTE: Well, I don‘t know if I totally agree with Joe. I think Joe is right in the sense that these hearings certainly do have set rules now. But the one thing that...
MATTHEWS: Would you tell a Republican nominee that you liked to come out there and tell the unvarnished truth or would you say, “If you talk honestly about what you really think about Roe v. Wade and the court‘s discovery of something called privacy, inherent in the Constitution, that that hadn‘t been discovered before ‘73, you‘re a dead man, so don‘t tell the truth.”
DEWINE: You know, Chris, these rules were basically set from the time of Ginsburg on, the Democrat nominee. And she‘s kind of the gold standard, where she says, you know, “I‘m not going to give you all the details.”
But the one thing that is clear, that all the nominees will talk about is what they have decided. If they have decided a case, then they‘ll tell you about that case and why they decide it. And what‘s interesting is this nominee, more than almost any other nominee has, you know, over a decade of cases, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cases that he‘s decided about.
So when the Democrats say he won‘t talk, he won‘t be specific, I find that to be rather strange, because they have so much ammunition, so many things that they can talk about with this particular nominee. You know, it‘s clear, the nominees today, much to our chagrin, frankly, will not tell us how they‘re going to rule.
They won‘t even talk about previous Supreme Court decisions, which sometimes we just think is crazy. But they will talk about what they have decided, and Alito has got a lot of cases that the members of this committee can talk to him about and are asking him about.
MATTHEWS: How about your women voters in Ohio? Would they be happy with a judge that said to get an abortion, which of course is a tragic case in most people‘s consciences. To have to have one, or to have one, be in a situation to have one, to have to get their husband‘s notification, to notify their husband. Do you think that would sell with the American people, if they thought about this particular—are you talking about cases he‘s rendered an opinion on, he rendered a minority opinion in that case, in the Casey case in Pennsylvania.
DEWINE: First of all, Chris, I think, you know, you and I both know you can‘t say how women—all women don‘t think alike. We have a number of pro-life women in the state of Ohio, as well as pro-choice women. I think that you know, he was questioned about that extensively.
The interesting thing, you know, I happen to be pro-life—out of, you know, three major cases he considered in regard to abortion, two out of three, he came down on the pro-choice side, so—and he did say..
MATTHEWS: ... Where do you come out, Senator? Are you for or against a requirement of notification, at least to say on your application when you go for the procedure that you notified your spouse? Do you think that‘s appropriate law?
DEWINE: I think if the state legislature decides to do that, I think that‘s fine. I mean, look, it seems to me that the state legislatures consider that, that that will allow the state legislature to make that decision. But again, it‘s a state legislative decision that they need to decide.
MATTHEWS: See, Sandra Day O‘Connor disagreed with you on that and disagreed with Judge Alito, that‘s why—I guess that‘s an important distinction between the justices being replaced here and the one that‘s coming in.
DEWINE: Seems to me, it again is—you know, it‘s a state issue.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you more about these questions of executive authority. Do you think that Judge Alito has some answers to—that he‘s required to give now about how far he would go in extending the commander-in-chief role of the president during wartime.
And how much authority—there‘s so much talk about how much power this president has in terms of acts of war, in terms of things he has to do to win a war, especially a strange new war like terrorism. Where do you stand on that one? Do you think the president should have more authority than normally?
DEWINE: Oh, I think that, you know, Chris, we are into obviously a big debate. I‘m on the Intelligence Committee. I think the Intelligence Committee needs to look at this. I think frankly we rMD+IN_rMDNM_need to look at this recent controversy, this recent revelation as part of the due course of our investigation. I think we need to do that. And need to get the briefing from the administration. All the members of the committee need to get that briefing, quite frankly.
MATTHEWS: You know...
DEWINE: ... That‘s part of our job.
MATTHEWS: Of course. It‘s also part of your job to see how the CIA is operating, of course. That‘s the responsibility of the bipartisan intelligence committee of the Senate.
But weren‘t you stunned by that book where Jim Risen of “The New York Times” said, we‘re using some sources, maybe not enough, that the CIA was basically gagged during the walk up to the war with Iraq, prevented from offering its criticisms of the war, of offering up a counter-intelligence that would have countered some of the intelligence the president and the vice president were using?
DEWINE: Look, I have not read the book. We looked at our committee, as you know, did an investigation, both the joint, both the Senate and the House did an investigation as far as, you know, what information was available prior to that time.
We didn‘t find any skewing of the information going into either Congress or to the administration or any—making it from a political point of view.
MATTHEWS: Well, this author has found it and it‘s a question of who‘s right now, because he said to the people inside the security agencies and the CIA, were hounded out of office if they told things that the administration didn‘t want to hear, that countered a case for war.
DEWINE: Look, Chris, that‘s clearly something that‘s within the jurisdiction of our committee and something that we should be looking at as parts of our job.
MATTHEWS: Thank you very much, Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio. Thank you, Sir.
DEWINE: Good to see you, Chris, thank you.
MATTHEWS: Coming up, the Abramoff scandal and the fight for leadership among House Republicans. Who will replace Tom DeLay as majority leader? We‘ll talk to his predecessor, Dick Armey and former Congressman Tony Coelho, a top Democrat. You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Well it‘s back to the snake pit. Jack Abramoff‘s indictment and Tom DeLay‘s announcement that he won‘t try to get his leadership job back have sparked two potentially big fights. One is a heated race for the new Republican leadership in the House. The other is the Speaker Dennis Hastert‘s push for a lobbying reform bill, whatever that‘s going to be.
We‘re joined right now by two people who know a lot about the House of Representatives and how it does business. Dick Armey‘s the former Republican majority leader from Texas and Tony Coelho is the former Democratic majority leader from California. Thank you, gentlemen. Who is getting hurt the worst on this? Mr. Armey?
DICK ARMEY ®, FORMER HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: Well, I don‘t know. I think everybody‘s getting hurt by this sort of thing. It doesn‘t look good for any of us. The fact is, what kind of breaks your heart is so many good people trying real hard to do the right thing that get lost in the shadows. But the fact of the matter is, they are going to have to straighten it out and regain the confidence of the American people. And I think that‘s true for people on both parties.
MATTHEWS: Is there any rule changes that you—you‘re an expert, Tony—is there any rule change that would change, would end the power. I mean, I was looking at this today. A $12.5 trillion economy trying to work its will in a Congress of 535 people who influence tax law, influence regulation, influence trade law, all that power and all that $12.5 trillion dollars wants to do is make those people do things to make them more money. How do you stop that?
TONY COELHO (D-CALIF.), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: You can‘t, Chris. I mean, these are human beings. In the time I was there, 25 years as a staffer and as a member, we had three reforms of the House—three.
And they were major reforms. And what happens is that what you have is tremendous amount of influence. Ban lobbyists? Well, you can‘t. Constitution permits people to petition the Congress. And so there‘s a lot of issues that come up and go through that Congress that people are going to petition, they‘re going to seek out individuals, they‘re going to find the weak staffers, they‘re going to find the weak members to get things done. And there‘s always some weak people in every group. I don‘t care what people say.
MATTHEWS: That‘s the underbelly, Tony. I think you‘re right. You know, the staffers on the go. Some people, you know, go to work for Congress so they can be lobbyists two years later. It‘s all planned lifestyle. Let me ask you about regular members. It‘s all a planned lifestyle.
But let me ask you about good members, regular members. What in your experience is the strongest influence from a lobbyist on a regular member who is fairly clean? Is it friendship, is it former membership in the Congress?
ARMEY: It‘s reliable, honest information. When I came into Congress, my worst fear was I would make the wrong vote because I didn‘t understand. Lobbyists represents a client that will live with the consequences of the law that is under consideration. He comes in and he shares that information.
And if he‘s an honest man who gives you accurate information, you know, you‘re going to say this has been useful to me. Now you have may vote this way or that way, but at least you‘re not ignorant of the consequences.
MATTHEWS: So he tells you how many jobs are at stake in your district?
ARMEY: No, not necessarily that. For example, we dealt with, especially in this electronic economy, a lot things that a lot of us couldn‘t even have imagined through most our lifetimes, and so what happens on the Internet with respect to this kind of a change in telecommunications.
MATTHEWS: OK, let‘s talk about the dirty stuff. Hiring wise, this is a big thing with the DeLay matter. Going out there and hiring Scanlon‘s wife or DeLay‘s wife, or Ney‘s wife, or whoever these people are. I guess Scanlon doesn‘t have a wife. He was supposed to have one, he didn‘t.
How do you stop—I mean, that would seem to be a pretty big influence. You go home and your wife says, “Well, you know, there‘s X many jobs in your district,” and she‘s lobbying you with pillow talk or somebody. How do you—isn‘t that a powerful influence on Congress when you hire the guy‘s wife and give her five or six figures, I mean, give her 20, 30, 50, $100,000 a year, isn‘t that an influence? I mean, does anybody not believe it is?
COELHO: Well, there‘s no way you can deny it. Not only a spouse, but there‘s children.
COELHO: And so there‘s got to be influence and you know there has to be.
MATTHEWS: Right. Should that be outlawed or can you do that legally?
COELHO: I don‘t know how you can do that, Chris. It comes down to the individual. I mean, Dick said, you know, the way he—I treated lobbyists by this, “If you ever lied to me once, you‘re never in the office again.”
MATTHEWS: OK, I want to ask you about, when we come back, some of this Mickey Mouse stuff. When you were members of Congress, according to the laws you passed, you could take a meal of up to $50. You could take two meals a year of up to $100, which sounds very pristine.
But then it has codicils in there like booze doesn‘t count. Who put that damn thing in the law? Booze in Washington is a lot more expensive than hamburgers. You can get a steak for under $50, but when the Chateau Lafite-Rothschild arrives, for $200 a bottle, you guys are in—I want to ask you about these laws are how they‘re written with. Dick Armey and Tony Coelho, the guys that used to work this business.
Anyway, we‘re right back. And later, as House Republicans try to distance themselves from the Abramoff scandal, we‘ll talk to Congressman David Dreier, who‘s leading the effort to rewrite the rules about lawmakers dealing with lobbyists. You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back. We‘re talking to former Republican Congressman Dick Armey, the former leader of the House, who served as the House majority leader. And former Democratic Congressman Tony Coelho, who is the Democratic whip.
This question, you both are lobbying now, right? You‘re both registered? No, you don‘t lobby. Well, you do. Has it hurt your business now, are people down on lobbyists or hiring you?
ARMEY: The decision to hire a person to represent you as a lobbyist before Congress is a professional consumption choice or purchase. Professional people make that.
I think what people are going to get from this is we must be more discerning in who we choose to represent us. Then I have argued that myself and my firm, the people I associate with, will only gain more clients by that, because they‘re going to take a hard look at us and they‘re going to say, “Hey, these are professional guys that are serious about their work, they‘re confident, they‘re able and they‘re honest.”
MATTHEWS: Suppose you have a corporation as a client or a trade association that has big bucks, billions of dollars, it‘s taking a transition role, whether the tax law goes in October 1 or January 1. I‘ve known all about that on the Hill, how powerful those dates are.
They don‘t want to hear from you that you well advised the senator or the congressman that you were helpful to them and instructive. They want to know whether you got the vote, don‘t they?
ARMEY: Well, but how do you get their vote. To me, it‘s a matter of self-respect and respect of a member. If I go into the member and I treat him like a serious person, it‘s almost a Pygmalion effect. He‘s not going to want to show me that he‘s shallow if I say this is serious work and a heavy responsibility on your part and let me talk to you about it.
MATTHEWS: OK, let me ask you about some questions about—you‘ve both been there. Should Congress people be allowed to take airplane rides from corporations?
ARMEY: I don‘t think it should matter, but I—I‘m sure they can live without it.
MATTHEWS: Do you think wives or spouses should be hired by people who want influence with the Congress?
ARMEY: I don‘t think so myself.
COELHO: I have problems with it, although I do believe they need to work and we‘re big into equal rights now. And so I think to eliminate spouses, I think, would be unconstitutional.
MATTHEWS: Do you think it would be OK for the NRA to hire somebody‘s wife on the Hill, for AARP, for APAC, for any group that has a big interest in Congress?
COELHO: I think—I‘m not against that. I happen to feel that...
MATTHEWS: ... You can see how the public would think it was influential.
ARMEY: It‘s a hard call to make, but if a wife is hired because of her competence and her ability, that‘s a perfectly legitimate thing. If she‘s hired because she‘s his wife, that‘s not legitimate.
MATTHEWS: If this guy, Robert Ney, had gone to a golf trip in Schenectady as part of a speech up there, rather than going to Scotland, he‘d be off free, right?
ARMEY: Absolutely, totally.
MATTHEWS: So it matters—don‘t go to Scotland, go to Schenectady.
COELHO: Well, that‘s my whole point, Chris, is if it‘s legit, you‘re going to get off.
MATTHEWS: Why should the public get crazed about Scotland not Schenectady?
ARMEY: I go to North Carolina on behalf of a member to do a campaign event for him and he says by the way, you‘ve got some time, let‘s go fishing this afternoon. All right, because the fishing was something I did in addition to what I was doing.
In the Scotland trip, as I see it, they said let‘s go to Scotland and play golf, and by the way, we‘ll try to see someone to make it look official. People know of these things.
MATTHEWS: These factors are going to be an issue, poor David Dreier, he‘s coming up right now, he is going to have to figure this baby out. Thank you Dick Armey, thank you Tony Coelho, my friend.
Up next, House Republicans looking to distance themselves from the Abramoff scandal. Now what new laws aimed at curbing the influence of lobbyists do we need. We will talk to the man they‘ve asked to fix the problem, that‘s Congressman David Dreier, the rule maker of the future. You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. As influence peddler Jack Abramoff gets ready to be the government‘s star witness in its probe into congressional corruption, a sleazy lobbying firm dies a deserved death. Which members will they take down with them. HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster has the whole tough story.
DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Nestled in the high-rent neighborhood of Georgetown, the Republican Alexander Strategy Group last year was a top 25 Washington influence peddler that raked in more than eight million dollars.
The group lobbied for companies and organizations, including manufacturers in the pharmaceutical industry, but the firm closely linked to Jack Abramoff and owned by Congressman Tom DeLay‘s former chief of staff is now closed for business.
While the firm Web site still boasts, “Our experience and relationships are just the start,” it is actually the end because the firm is as dead as Julius Caesar.
Owner Ed Buckham told The Washington Post, quote, “Reports in the press have made it difficult to continue as a lobbying political entity.” It was this firm that hired the wife of Republican lawmaker John Doolittle. No influence there. The Congressman is one of a dozen believed to be under investigation.
And disclosure forms show the firm also paid Christine DeLay, wife of Tom DeLay $3,000 a month to collect information on charities.
In Sugarland, Texas, where this weekend Tom DeLay announced he is not going to run again for House majority leader but will still seek reelection to Congress, the first shots in the 2006 midterms are now being fired.
A Democratic activist group is now running this television ad.
ANNOUNCER: Forty-eight trips to golf resorts, 100 flights aboard company jets, 200 nights at world class resorts and hotels. One million dollars from Russian tycoons to allegedly influence his vote. One million dollars from Russian tycoons? What else will we uncover about Tom DeLay?
SHUSTER: Adding to DeLay‘s problems, the once all powerful Republican majority leader now has three primary challengers facing him on March 7. In Ohio, there are rumblings of a primary challenge to Republican Bob Ney. Federal prosecutors have notified Ney he will likely be indicted and the same Democratic group that targeted DeLay has erected this highway billboard and is now hammering Ney with this radio ad.
ANNOUNCER: A lavish trip to Scotland to play golf on world famous courses, free tickets to sporting events, meals at upscale restaurants, tens of thousands of dollars. Sounds like a game show jackpot, doesn‘t it? Unfortunately, it‘s what Ohio Congressman Bob Ney got for indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
SHUSTER: Today‘s Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 58 percent of Americans believe the Abramoff case is evidence of widespread corruption in Washington, compared to just 34 percent who say it is limited to a few individuals. And while 52 percent see members of Congress as about as honest as the average American, 44 percent say lawmakers are more dishonest.
It‘s why California Congressman David Dreier may now be the most valuable lawmaker Republicans have at the moment because Dreier, chairman of the powerful Rules Committee has been asked to draft legislation for lobbying reform.
For Jack Abramoff, the intense media spotlight has not been a ride in the park. And here‘s one for the trivial pursuit scandal edition. Remember Monica Lewinsky, the Clinton intern whose scandal led to a presidential impeachment?
She and Jack Abramoff attended the same elementary and high school in Beverly Hills, California. And regarding Abramoff‘s education, the L.A. Times adds this twist. The paper reports that in middle school, Abramoff ran for student council president and was, quote, “Disqualified for exceeding the spending limits. The principal penalized Abramoff for holding a party stating it amounted to a campaign expenditure that pushed him over the limit.”
(on camera): Yes, as a sixth grader, the young Jack Abramoff was already showing signs of what his adult life would become. What do they teach in Southern California?
The bigger question though is which influence peddler or group will be the next to fall in the Abramoff corruption scandal? I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.
MATTHEWS: Thank you, David Shuster. House Rules Chairman David Dreier of California is heading the effort to tighten lobbying rules and he‘s with us this evening from the House gallery. Congressman, thank you for joining us.
REP. DAVID DREIER (R-CA): Happy new year to you, Chris.
MATTHEWS: Same to you. You have a tough job. Let me ask you about this Abramoff thing. Do you think that anyone who took money from Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist, is going to have a hard time keeping their leadership position?
DREIER: You know, I have absolutely no idea. I think what Jack Abramoff did, the guy has plead guilty, it was terrible, and I think that, you know, we should let the process run its course.
I guess he contributed to a lot of people, and a lot of contributions from his efforts went to Democrats and Republicans alike. My real focus is on how we bring about meaningful reform so that we can make sure that this institution remains very—with the highest level of integrity, and that we have the deliberative nature which the American people expect and deserve.
MATTHEWS: You have very tight rules, Congressman, on gifts from lobbyists. I mean, there‘s $50 a meal, $100 throughout the year—in other words, you can only get two meals from a lobbyist of under $50. But there are some weird caveats in it like booze doesn‘t count. How do you explain these rules? I just was reading it. It says that when food or refreshments are offered simultaneously, same place and time, to both a member, officer or employee or his spouse or dependent, only the food provided to the member can be considered a gift.
Now, why would you write a rule that exhibited—that exempted booze, when that‘s usually the most expensive part of the meal?
DREIER: You know, that‘s a very good point, and I will tell you that‘s one of the reasons that we‘re doing everything that we can, the speaker has—to try and bring about meaningful reform here.
The speaker asked me to listen to my colleagues and listen to the American people, and come up with some recommendations for him, as we get ready to begin the second session of the 109th Congress.
And what we‘re going to do, Chris, is I‘ve already—I had a good conversation just a few minutes ago with my colleague, John McCain. I‘m reaching out with Democrats. I‘m going to—I‘ve had a conversation with Steny Hoyer, the minority whip.
This is an issue that is something that transcends political party and it‘s a very high priority, and dealing with situations like the one that you just outlined is something that I believe we‘re going to be able to do.
I think the most important thing is for us to focus on transparency and disclosure. Empowering the American people with as much information as possible. This notion of looking at how lobbying dollars are expended juxtaposed to campaign contributions, I think that‘s a very healthy and important thing to do. And you know, this is—we‘re dealing with a serious issue, one which is not going to be glossed over at all. We plan to be bold—that‘s the speaker‘s charge to me—and we, I think, have a chance to make this happen. And again, do it with input from Republicans and Democrats.
MATTHEWS: Nine out of 10 people watching this show, according to a new poll, believe that congresspeople, members of Congress and senators, shouldn‘t take a nickel from lobbyists. What would be wrong with that, just saying no gifts at all from anybody who‘s a registered lobbyist?
DREIER: You know, that‘s one of the options that we‘re going to look at.
You know, Thomas Jefferson talked about the fact that you, Chris, and everyone in your audience should be skeptical of me and every other elected official. A healthy skepticism is part of the Jeffersonian vision.
The thing that has happened is, is we‘ve moved from that healthy skepticism to a corrosive cynicism, and I hope and pray that the effort that we‘ve launched here will get us back to that healthy skepticism. And so, what you just outlined is clearly something that we‘re going to look at.
I‘m just in the process of gathering as many different ideas, and I‘ve talked to people—in the last 48 hours, I‘ve talked to people from virtually all walks of life—members of Congress, people here in Washington, people outside of Washington—and I‘m getting a lot of very, very good ideas.
MATTHEWS: OK. Well, thank you. Good luck with this campaign. I hope it works.
DREIER: Thanks very much, Chris. Thank you very much.
MATTHEWS: Congressman David Dreier, chairman of the House Rules Committee.
Up next, as Republicans in the House battle to be the next leader, is Dennis Hastert safe in the speaker‘s chair, or could the Abramoff scandal topple him, the top guy? This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: We‘re back. We‘re joined by MSNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent Norah O‘Donnell; Karen Tumulty, who is the national political correspondent for “Time” magazine, and Anne Kornblut, who is “The New York Times” reporter covering the story we‘re about to cover, which is something like, I don‘t know, being bloodhounds, I think, because we‘re going to try to figure out where the scandal involving Jack Abramoff is headed right now.
Karen Tumulty, you start it off. Who are the next suspects who are about to be nailed here?
KAREN TUMULTY, “TIME” MAGAZINE: Well, I think that most of the speculation at this point is circling around a few people. Congressman Bob Ney.
MATTHEWS: What did he do wrong?
TUMULTY: Well, he had not only taken a lot of money, gifts, trips, favors from Jack Abramoff, but it appears that at one point he put a statement in the Congressional Record to help along a business deal that Abramoff was in the middle of. He helped Abramoff‘s client get a wireless service provider contract in the Capitol. There are a number of things that prosecutors had been looking at, and also I think...
MATTHEWS: By the way, why would he be looking out for an Israeli company to get business in the U.S. Capitol? I mean, why would he have—would he ever be handling a foreign customer? He‘s not representing Ohio interests here.
TUMULTY: This is exactly the kind of thing that the prosecutors want to know. They also want to know why a congressman from Ohio is deciding to insert a statement into the Congressional Record regarding a deal that is going down in Florida.
MATTHEWS: The NSA could have caught this guy, on electronic surveillance it would have been easy to pick him up. Israeli electronic surveillance company—OK, Robert Ney. What‘s the connection? Loot. Trips to Scotland. All kinds of stuff. So it‘s Robert Ney.
Who is the other likely suspect here to go down?
ANNE KORNBLUT, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, in the House, it‘s unclear what the names are. There‘s a number—I mean, they say, you know, up to a dozen lawmakers...
MATTHEWS: Who are the names?
KORNBLUT: ... who are under scrutiny. I‘m not, you know, until...
MATTHEWS: Well, who are you reporting on?
KORNBLUT: Ney is the likeliest suspect at this point. Actually, if I had to say what I think is going to happen next, I think we‘re going to see the middle tier, the people who used to work for Tom DeLay, who used to work for Ney, and maybe a couple of other names...
MATTHEWS: But aren‘t they the state‘s witnesses?
KORNBLUT: Well, that‘s why I think we‘ll see what‘s happening with them next.
You know, at the end of the day, the Justice Department would love to see plea agreements with everybody. They don‘t need to have a trial.
MATTHEWS: What about these names that are floating around, what‘s Doolittle connected here with? How did he get connected? His wife‘s working for Abramoff...
KORNBLUT: In a number of these cases...
MATTHEWS: You have got DeLay‘s wife working for Abramoff.
KORNBLUT: That‘s right. DeLay‘s wife, Christine DeLay, got about $115,000 to do consulting work.
MATTHEWS: Three a month, right?
KORNBLUT: Yeah, about $3,500 a month, $3,300 a month. So they—you know, they were on the payroll, but I think Norah actually did a story last week talking about, this is also a Justice Department mechanism for pressuring these guys to talk.
MATTHEWS: I was just going to get to Hastert, Speaker of the House. I look at the numbers and I think it‘s unfair to say that everybody took $1,000 from this guy for the treasury campaign. Even if you‘re pretty good about it you look at it and say, who is this Abramoff, he is a big conservative guy, interested in Jewish causes. Fine, sounds clean. Check that off.
Some of the guys have deeper interests with the guy. Who are they?
Doolittle? His wife is working for the guy.
Who else do we have here? We‘ve got Conrad Burns from Montana.
TUMULTY: Conrad Burns took a lot of money from Jack Abramoff, had to give it back. You asked about Denny Hastert. Denny Hastert—
MATTHEWS: he gave back $69,000, right?
TUMULTY: Right. That was money that was basically from a fund raiser that Jack Abramoff helped arrange for him. I think Denny Hastert‘s jeopardy here is when the leadership elections roll around in the House, because right now, this House Republican conference has gone from being the most disciplined operation we have seen in a long time, to every man for himself.
They are looking at a clean sweep of their leadership. I think last week nobody thought Denny Hastert would have been part of that clean sweep. I think this week it‘s possible.
MATTHEWS: What‘s different here? People sitting up in New York, I talk to them all the time, The New York Times, your paper, led on the front page last week, Washington, which has a rich history in political corruption like we‘re honky-tonk town down here, I don‘t think that‘s a fair charge, I think it‘s as clean as any other government around, Maybe Switzerland‘s cleaner or Denmark, but it is probably as clean as a couple other counties I can think of, like Russia.
Is this going to be stinky poo for the rest of our life now because of guys like Abramoff?
KORNBLUT: This goes in cycles. This hasn‘t been the first time there‘s a cycle of scandal. What you already see in the House leadership is an effort to portray themselves as the reformists. There are a number of lobbying reform bills out there.
MATTHEWS: I wish them well, but I think there‘s problems. I noticed the last time they wrote a reform bill, you can only have two meals with the lobbyist. Why they do it this way, but they don‘t count booze. They specifically denied the role of booze in lobbying.
KORNBLUT: And a seat in the sky box at one of the stadiums costs conveniently $49.99, because it‘s right under the $50 limit.
MATTHEWS: Good business practice there. We‘ll be right back with ANNE, Karen, an maybe we‘ll get Norah back on the line.
MATTHEWS: We‘re back with Norah O‘Donnell, Anne Kornblut and, of course, Karen Tumulty. I‘m looking at these numbers, and we‘re going through the pecking order. You pick up on this, Norah, because you covered the hill so long.
People make generalized judgments when they read about one guy named Abramoff, and they may not know the name of any other lobbyist in the world. They may only know the name of their Congressman and maybe DeLay or somebody.
But here is a number, 58 percent say Abramoff scandal means widespread corruption. That‘s in our poll. Is that the message we‘re getting, that the American people believe that Abramoff is this big stinky poo, who represents Washington?
NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and the stench covers both parties, both the Republicans and Democrats. That‘s why it‘s not clear that the Republicans will lose the House of Representatives at this point—or people will take it out on the Republican party, because most people at this stage are looking at lawmakers and saying a pox on both houses.
It depends on which party gets out in front of the reform, ahead of the other. And that‘s why Hastert, the Speaker of the House, canceled his trip overseas, he brought back David Dreier, who you had on the show earlier, to put together this reform package.
They‘re more concerned about the political fallout. It may only be just a few Congress may not that get indicted or have to cop a plea with The Justice Department, but they are really concerned about the political fallout.
MATTHEWS: It reminds me of one of those things in the early part of the last century where some dig humpty dumpty, like William Howard Taft, said to his political boss, isn‘t there something we should like we‘re doing? Are they ever going to do anything?
If they excuse booze from their meal list, you have to wonder how serious these guys are.
KORNBLUT: Here it is with the booze again.
MATTHEWS: That‘s my reporting. I dug it up. I couldn‘t believe, when I went through all the rules today, something you never reported, nobody else did, that these guys exempted booze from their meal list.
KORNBLUT: It‘s like campaign finance reform. We went though this just a few years ago. It was all supposed to be fixed.
MATTHEWS: Drier didn‘t know about it tonight.
KORNBLUT: The lobbying reform bill?
MATTHEWS: He‘d better learn it soon, because he didn‘t know that his own House rules that currently affect him said you could eat up to $50 and keep drinking through Midnight.
KORNBLUT: Some of the things we would like—like eliminating alcohol, would actually be tough for some of them.
MATTHEWS: Including it in the limits. Exactly.
KORNBLUT: One of the things they‘re talking about is making you wait two or five years before you can get a job in lobbying where you end up lobbying your former boss. That would be painful for some of these guys.
MATTHEWS: Especially to real sleaze bags who go to get jobs on Capitol Hill so they can become lobbyists in a year or two. That‘s new.
TUMULTY: What Jack Abramoff did is—the rules in place are as strict as we have ever seen. What Jack Abramoff was doing was figuring out ways to get around them. The next generation of lobbyists will do that too. The only answer to any of this it to start electing honest people.
MATTHEWS: I agree. Norah, you said—under the laws, you can go give a speech for somebody, and have a nice meal, have a nice weekend. Most conventions are held in nice places like La Quinta, or Palm Springs or Palm Beach. That‘s where people meet for corporate or trade associations.
You can do that and along the way you can find something that‘s not reaction. But if you go to Scotland, same kind of weekend, and you go to jail.
O‘DONNELL: But there is a lot of golf with lobbyists going on not in Scotland, but right here in Washington at many of the courses, and that‘s not illegal. But Karen makes a very good point, and that‘s why Jack Abramoff is so different.
What he was doing was going around the rules in any way he could. He put all these sham charities together. He used wives and staffers. That was unprecedented.
MATTHEWS: I thought that‘s what tax lawyers did.
Anyway, thank you Norah O‘Donnell, ANNE Kornblut and Karen Tumulty.
Right now it‘s time for THE ABRAMS REPORT with Dan.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2006 MSNBC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Transcription Copyright 2006 Voxant,Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.