Abramoff Scandal and Calls For Reform

By Nick Nyhart, Press Release

As Scandal Spreads through the Nation’s Capital, It’s Time to Address the Underlying Problem: Our Pay to Play Campaign Finance System

Summary: With scandals swirling around disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), likely to spread to dozens of members of Congress and aides, official Washington’s reply is to offer lobbying reform proposals. While lobbying reform is important, these proposals lack the crucial element needed to restore public confidence in our political system: addressing the pay-to-play campaign finance system that puts lobbyists and other special interests ahead of ordinary voters. In contrast, Connecticut, Arizona, Maine, and other states and localities are passing and implementing practical, proven full public financing systems that allow candidates to run for office without being in the pocket of well heeled donors.


With disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with federal investigators, official Washington is running scared. And no wonder: as many as 60 lawmakers and aides may be vulnerable to charges of trading official actions for campaign money and other ethical and legal lapses, according to some news reports. The blooming scandal has forced Rep. Tom DeLay, with his many ties to Abramoff, to give up his plans to regain his leadership position. (Of course, DeLay also faces criminal charges for laundering campaign funds in his home state of Texas.) Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) is clearly implicated in the Abramoff scandals, and many more names are likely to be revealed in the months to come.

We do not know yet how far this investigation will take us, but already, the Abramoff affair is the worst political corruption scandal in a generation, worse than Abscam, the “selling†of the Lincoln bedroom, or the Jim Wright book deal. This new set of scandals revolving around money, politics, and power will likely leave a permanent stain on our history on the order of Watergate and Teapot Dome.

With scandal comes the cry for reforms. Trial balloons are being sent up by members of Congress from both parties, but, as yet, none touch the issue of pay-to-play politics that is central to the current crisis. In our current money-laden system, it is virtually impossible for a politician to run a successful campaign for office without climbing into the pockets of lobbyists and special interest donors. Jack Abramoff may represent an extreme in the universe of lobbyists, but he is a product of the current corrupting system. Without the help of pay-to-play politics, Abramoff would not have been able to rise to his notorious success any more than Al Capone could have become king of Chicago’s underworld without that city’s bribery-fueled political machine.

Take, for example, Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), recently designated by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) as his caucus’ point man for reform proposals. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Santorum ranks as the top recipient of lobbyist money during the current political cycle. Since 2001, he has raised $182,470 from lobbyists. But that’s just slightly more than two percent of the $11.5 million total in campaign cash during that period. In contrast to his lobbyist money, Santorum’s taken $1.3 million from finance, insurance, and real estate companiesâ€"the very sorts of interests that hire these lobbyists.

What is true for Santorum is true for all. In the 2004 elections lobbyists contributed $26.9 million, a sizable chunk of change. However, this amount is dwarfed by the $1.5 billion contributed by other business interests.

Reforms, if they are to have teeth, cannot ignore this deeper issue of a Washington, D.C. political and policy system marinated in special interest money.

Deeper Reform: Cities and States Leading the Way

In sharp contrast to Washington, DC, a number of states and localities around the nation are forging forward and passing bold but common sense reform that provides full public financing for candidates running for public office. Full public financing of elections puts ordinary voters in charge and takes power away from well-heeled lobbyists and other special interests.

  • In December 2005, the Connecticut legislature and Republican governor approved legislation offering public financing to statewide and legislative candidates who agree to spending limits and prove their seriousness by collecting small contributions from constituents; the bill also bans most lobbyist political contributions. Connecticut is the first state in the nation where the legislature and governor have approved full public financing for their own races. The Connecticut reforms follow scandals that put former Connecticut Governor John Rowland, two big city mayors, and a state treasurer in jail.
  • Last May, the Portland, Oregon City Council approved a new system of “Voter Owned Elections,†making the city the first in the nation to adopt a system of full public financing. Already, city elections are more competitive with a more diverse range of candidates. The vote followed Portland voters saying "no" to a million-dollar mayoral candidate backed by big-business special interests and electing a reform-minded council. On Tuesday, January 17, utility companies and other big businesses are expected to turn in signatures for a repeal initiative intended for the May 2006 ballot. These lobbyists and special interests lost the City Council vote and are taking this to the ballot in a transparent attempt to maintain their influence in City Hall. Backers of the Voter-Owned Elections ordinance are organized and fighting back.
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico voters passed the Open and Ethical Elections Code in October, 2005 by a 69% to 31% vote. The measure provides public funding to qualifying candidates who agree not to accept contributions from individuals or special interests.
  • Arizona and Maine have offered full public financing of statewide and legislative races, or Clean Elections, since the 2000 election cycle. In both states, there is strong participation by candidatesâ€"58% of the current Arizona House and 23% of the current Arizona Senate ran “Clean,†as did all but one of Arizona’s statewide elected officials. And 78% of Maine legislature used public financing to gain office. Both states have seen increased candidate participation and competition, a more diverse group of legislators and officials elected.
  • North Carolina, New Mexico, Vermont and New Jersey have Clean Elections systems for some races. In 2003, the North Carolina legislature enacted a public funding option for State Supreme Court and Court of Appeals candidates. In New Mexico, this year, for the first time, candidates running for the Public Regulatory Commission will have the option to qualify for full public funding. In Vermont, the system that provides public funding for gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial candidates is not in wide use because of legal attacks on spending limit provisions unique to that state’s law; however, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to review the constitutionality of these limits later in 2006. This past year, in New Jersey, a public financing pilot project was implemented for two State House districts.

National Reforms with Teeth

In the face of the burgeoning Abramoff/DeLay scandal, Congress has an opportunity to take up reforms that change the way Washington does business, reducing the influence of lobbyists and the vested interests that hire them.

Most importantly, Congress must squarely address the inherent conflicts in our system of privately financing campaigns by taking up the issue of publicly financed elections. The current presidential partial public financing system is broken; it must be fixed. Further, full public funding should be available to congressional candidates who agree to limit their spending. Any reform plan that does not include elements providing an alternative to the special interest funding of federal campaigns will not effectively deal with the most troublesome core issues facing our political system

In addition, Public Campaign supports proposals that will:

  • provide greater transparency to lobbyist-lawmakers dealings by requiring increased disclosure on a real time basis made available to the public via the internet;
  • curtail lobbyist influence by: prohibiting lobbyists from giving gifts to members of Congress and paying for trips for them; bolster revolving door provisions; and sharply limiting campaign contributions from lobbyists’ and lobbyists’ bundling of client contributions; and
  • strengthen the ethics review process, including establishing a new independent ethics prosecutor for Congress.

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Public Campaign is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to sweeping reform that aims to reduce dramatically the influence of special interest money and big contributors on America's elections. Public Campaign is laying the foundation for reform by working with citizen organizations and other groups around the country that are fighting for comprehensive change. Together, we are building powerful national force for state and federal reform.

Public Campaign
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Ph. 202-293-0222 FAX 202-293-0202 Email: info@publicampaign.org

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