Conrad Burns should not be on anyone's list of
worst Senators. As the Republican chairman of an
Appropriations and a Commerce subcommittee, he has
plenty of power, and he has used it over his 17
years in Washington to bring $2 billion to Montana.
Yet the former Marine is in trouble. For starters,
he is serially offensive. In the last campaign,
Burns called Arabs "ragheads" and had to apologize.
In 1994 he played along when a rancher made a
demeaning comment about African Americans. Last
month he told a woman, within earshot of the media,
that he was looking forward to getting "knee-walking
drunk." Says staff member Matt Mackowiak: "Montanans
know Conrad [and know that] he likes to crack
jokes." Yet Burns' approval rating has dipped to
38%. As for legislating, the former farm-radio
broadcaster's record over three terms are meager:
Asked what his greatest successes over two decades
were, aides touted a cell-phone measure that
requires providers to route emergency calls to the
closest hospital and another that opens the
satellite spectrum to public auction.
problem, however, is not with making law but with
staying on the right side of it. Federal
investigators are looking into his ties to Jack
Abramoff, the lobbyist who has admitted bribing
lawmakers. In 2003 Burns got the Interior Department
to make a $3 million grant to a rich, Michigan-based
tribal client of Abramoff's; Burns also received
$150,000 in contributions from Abramoff, his
co-workers and his clients over the past five years.
(Burns has since given those funds to charity.) In
an April article in Vanity Fair, Abramoff said,
"Every appropriation we wanted [from Burns'
committee], we got ... I mean, it's a little difficult
for him to run from that record."