It’s too bad you can’t impeach a first lady. Connecticut First Lady Patty Rowland’s rhyming poem-diatribe against overzealous Hartford Courant reporters when the Rowland “cabin-gate” scandal first broke demonsrated just the kind of arrogance and contempt that got her husband in trouble in the first place. But in one sense Mrs. Rowland was right: the real story behind the latest in a long string of Rowland ethical lapses — that is, how feeble are the laws regulating the interaction between corporate and political elites — has been missed by the media, drowned amidst the First Lady’s ballistic nursery rhymes and knee-jerk “reformism” from Rowland’s growing opposition. After the scandal broke, amid an outpouring of indignation — the New Haven Advocate’s “Rowland Watch” weblog commented on China’s policy of executing corrupt officials — which looked disturbingly similar to resentment over the Governor’s role in last year’s budget crisis, there were the usual let’s-look- at-the-underlying-problem calls for “reform,” namely more campaign finance laws and term limits.

Joel Schweidel, in a letter to the New Haven Advocate (“The Dems: Just as Disgusting,” 1/22), hit both topics. He advised political watchdogs to “look into the monies donated by the Capitol lobbyists not only to the Republicans but also the leadership of the Democrats,” and went on to make the sort of no-politicians-need-apply argument that always seems to flow into a case for term limits: “it’s time for someone who is not a career politician to take over the day-to-day management of our state.” It may sound more like a New Hampshire primary stump speech, not a program of meaningful reform. But every Watergate has its War Powers Act — that is, a non-sequitur masking as reform.

Similar calls to Schweidel’s were made after the last major Rowland scandal, when a waste management contract was awarded to an Enron subsidiary called Connecticut Resources Recovery Association (CRRA) even after Enron’s books had already been exposed as swiss cheese. More damning was the revelation that Rowland’s cabinet looked like a junior version of Enron’s Board. Rowland et al. had ties with the energy services giant ranging from stock ownership to personal relationships with management. Rowland’s longtime political director Michael Martone was Enron’s lobbyist, and his law firm represented Enron. Governor Rowland’s former Chief of Staff Peter Ellef was Chairman of the CRRA Board.

The problem for those of us who want to start cleaning up “Corrupticut” is that cabin-gate, like the CRRA scandal, has little to do with a quantifiable medium like campaign cash — it has to do with an entire deep-rooted culture of lobbying in which such “clubby” activities as personal favors and the government-corporate incest highlighted by the CRRA debacle go unregulated.

The problem is that Rowland’s bland apologies have demonstrated that basic taboos about fair play are no longer taboos. Rowland insisted that the Tomassi brothers — the brothers, not the company — are his personal friends, and the work they did on his lakeside cabin was a friendly gesture rather a buyoff. In other words, they do him favors without him even asking, and vice versa. So the problem isn’t corruption, it’s friendship?

Rowland’s logic is perverse not because there’s no way the Tomassi Brothers view their relationship with the governor the same way he views it, but because friendship and bribe-taking are equally bad for democracy. While the Hartford and New Haven press have gleefully smirked at Rowland’s improbable line of defense, they allow the discrepancy between ethics and legality to widen. And they let “reformers,” who have focused their efforts on campaign contributions and term limits, to go on consuming a giant sugar pill.

The 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill was supposed to begin the process of taking the special interests out of politics by taking the money out of politics. Part of the problem is that it hasn’t actually taken money out of politics at all (something which McCain himself has now admitted), but the bigger problem is that the logic is all wrong.

A recent editorial in the New York Times attacking Senator Ted Stevens explains why. The longtime Republican from Alaska has been bilking taxpayers for years to fund projects in Alaska in which he owns equity, in some cases up to $1 million worth. As the editorial declared, “stunningly there is no explicit ban on a senator’s engaging in profitable dealings with businesses and individuals who benefit from the lawmaker’s official actions.” Do you think Senator Stevens loses any sleep over McCain-Feingold?

Campaign finance laws are a red herring. Until Americans come to terms wit the fact that Hartford and Washington — with their lobbyist colonies, lax ethics, and (as Rowland and President Bush have amply demonstrated) flourishing tradition of corporate-political incest — follows their own rules, political elites like Rowland will keep using corporate skyboxes at Lady Huskies games, and the discrepancy between what is ethical and what is legal will continue to widen.

What’s begun to happen in Connecticut is actually a sign of hope: Rowland’s own Republican colleagues, whom he’s always treated with a certain feudal sense of superiority, are defecting, and because impeachment not only allows but depends on ethical arguments they may actually get to use his arrogant and bankrupt it-was-unwise-but-not-illegal excuse against him.

Poetic justice is great, but the real marker of progress will be when the Senate starts in on Ted Stevens, the embodiment of the Washington boys’ club that defines our flawed system and gives democracy a bad name.