Heard the one about the man who asks a woman whether she'd have sex with a stranger for five million dollars? She mulls it over and finally says yes, for five million she would. Okay, the man says, pulling out his wallet, how about $50? The woman slaps him. Why did you do that? he says. We already established what you'll do for money, I'm just haggling over price.
Oh, you heard that one already.
Well, how about the one about the lobbyist? He slips $500 to a congressman and says, ''This is for your vote on our bill.'' The congressmen gets all starchy and says his vote is a sacred trust and can't be bought for $500. ''Okay then,'' says the lobbyist, getting out his checkbook. ''How about if I donate $100,000 to your favorite political action committee? That's not a bribe. That's governing.''
The talk of Bakersfield, Calif., is now the talk of the nation, thanks to Jay Leno.
''It's being reported,'' the comedian said in his Wednesday night monologue, ''that Republican congressman Bill Thomas -- he is one of the leaders of health care finance reform -- is involved in what his own chief of staff is calling a sexual relationship with a female health maintenance organization representative. Having sex with his HMO representative? I can't even get my HMO guy on the phone, forget sex.''
The Bakersfield Californian has reported that Thomas -- the leading Republican on the Ways and Means subcommittee on health, and chief architect of the GOP's Medicare prescription drug proposal -- has had an ''intensely personal'' relationship with a woman who lobbies for major health care companies. Thomas denies a conflict of interest, but not a relationship.
The curious thing is that had the two been playing golf or tennis or met up at some conference, the way lobbyists and politicians sometimes do, hardly an eyebrow would have been raised.
For years, soft money and hardball lobbying have been writing the nation's playbooks, and Americans have slept through it all.
But someone must have put in a wake-up call for the year 2000 -- probably Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, the sadder but wiser former presidential candidate who came to repent having been so cozy with savings and loan sleight-of-hand man Charles L. Keating, even taking his family on vacations at Keating's hideaway in the Bahamas.
On Thursday, a day when the sky did not fall and the rivers did not run backward, the U.S. Senate, in the first campaign finance law fix in a generation, approved a bill requiring secret donors to reveal themselves and what they spend on a new kind of tax-exempt political committee.
It's a grudgingly narrow law, as laws go, but the vote was not; only six senators dissented, and the Republicans, who know a change in the home-state weather when they see it, defied their leadership and voted yes.
Will wonders never cease? The day when fiscal misconduct gets bigger headlines than sexual misconduct might yet arrive before the millennium -- the next one.
Still, why does it take a whiff of hot sheets to get extreme lobbying onto the public's radar? What a dumb question. It IS the sex, stupid.
There's even a sexual metaphor for a politician who gets too close to interest groups: ''in bed with,'' as in, ''Chuck Quackenbush is in bed with the California insurance industry.'' So now we have a politician who might literally be in bed with a lobbyist. I'm shocked, shocked. It's a difference of degree, not of kind.
Money doesn't talk. Money gabs and jawbones and elocutes. More than half a million dollars went to the lobbying campaign to talk the city of Los Angeles into expanding the Sunshine Canyon landfill. ''I hear you,'' said the city to the money, and voted yes.
In the first three months of this year, Los Angeles' ''Big Ten'' in lobbying fees includes half a million dollars spent to influence the matter of public access/broadband, which would require cable companies to lease out space on their high-speed networks to outside Internet providers, and $165,275 spent by land developers at the Playa Vista site where Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks studio wants to locate .
(Morrison is a Los Angeles Times columnist and frequent commentator
on National Public Radio's ''Morning Edition.'')
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