Here is a good column by Bruce Bartlett, discussing why Congress has become so corrupt that the Abramoff was inevitable and (its detection aside) utterly unsurprising. He notes how different the system was in the 1970s when he worked on the Hill, to which I'd add that it was still about 60 to 80% like that, rather than like today, when I was on the Hill in the mid 1980s.
My main quibble with the column is as follows. Bruce blames the Congressional "reforms" of the 1970s that hit the seniority system for starting the slide away from institutional pride and towards corruption, and says that the post-1994 changes did the rest of the damage. While I agree with his assessment of these changes, I suspect the moral collapse was inevitable anyway for broader cultural and institutional reasons. E.g., increasing partisanship for various structural reasons, ever greater move towards soundbite politics, celebrity culture, far greater professional fluidity in all kinds of fields, the stock market bubble culture of the 1990s, etc. Take the likes of Bill Frist, leaving aside that I consider him a disgusting political slut and looking just at the career path. Doctor from super-wealthy family gets a Senate seat, is immediately itching to move onward and upward if he can, etc. Not exactly the same type of story as Everett Dirksen or Russell Long.
Bruce concludes that the thing to do is bring back the committee system from pre-1974. He notes that, with its demise:
"A lobbyist no longer needed to know the substance of a bill or have long experience with the committee of jurisdiction. He just needed to know one guy in the leadership who could stick his proposal into a bill when no one was looking. By the time the bill was even printed, it would already be law.... [Thus,] a real reform would be to empower Congress's committees once again and make it harder for the leadership to act without proper oversight and deliberation."
Were it up to me, I'd certainly give this a try. But I suspect that Humpty Dumpty cannot in fact be put together again.
I realize that, unlike Bruce, I am not being very constructive here.