Conrad Burns: Shock Jock

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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.

Burns' real 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."