The Money Machine Remains

By Chellie Pingree

Writing for recently about ethics and lobbying reform, Alexandra Walker said what needed to be said: that public financing for federal elections would “revolutionize American politics†by “turning off the gushing spigot of special interest money that fuels election battles.â€

That Congress needs better ethics rules and oversight is beyond question. But Walker is right to include public financing in the discussion here because, in some ways, the current debate about ethics reform (which should not end with today's passage of a weak House reform bill) is missing the forest for the trees.

The objective of public financing, quite simply, is to create an incentive for candidates to reach out to more, small donors instead of fewer, large donors. That’s it. And why is this so important?

Soon-to-be-former Congressman Tom DeLay.

Part of Mr. DeLay’s legacy in Washington will be his systematic weaving of lobbyists into the fabric of the legislative process through the now infamous “K Street Project.†The K Street Project was part of Mr. DeLay’s larger plan to create a permanent Republican majority in the House of Representatives. The axis he created between the Republican Congress and the firms on K Street would, in Mr. DeLay’s plan, act as a kind of monetary feedback loop whereby Republican incumbents would have a reliable source of campaign contributions year after year.

And it worked. Because our existing campaign finance system not only allows for, but encourages K Street Projects. Mr. DeLay’s strategy can really be seen as just the logical extension of the forces that shape our congressional campaigns and ultimately Congress itself. Mr. DeLay realized this and used it, along with some fancy redistricting in Texas, in pursuit of total domination in Congress.

I have no quarrel with Mr. DeLay’s attempt to seek partisan dominance in Washington. That is the nature of the game. The issue is that his strategy rested not on the merit of Republican ideas about governance, but on gaming the system to make it impossible for Democrats to win elections. I am quite sure this is not what our Founding Fathers had in mind.

Congress is debating ethics and lobbying reform now because it is the face of Mr. DeLay’s larger, more destructive plan for permanent one-party control in Washington. The basis of that plan, however, was always the system that drives candidates to large campaign contributors out of necessity. Lobbyists like Jack Abramoff step in to act as middlemenâ€"connecting members of Congress to clients with specific legislative interests who are willing to pay to get what they want. Mr. DeLay merely formalized this naturally occurring process and gave it a name.

In other words, bad ethics is not the origin of the current scandal in Washington, and in some ways is a distraction from the real issueâ€"election financingâ€"that has been at work for much longer and gives elected officials like Mr. DeLay the opening for mischief. Public financing is about grounding our elections in a system that prevents the kind of gamesmanship Mr. DeLay made his reason for fighting.

The costs of corruption in Washington are indeed high, as many others have enumeratedâ€"in energy legislation that favors oil companies and Medicare legislation that favors pharmaceutical companies, all at the expense of the rest of us. The reasons for this can be traced through the unethical conduct of some members to the underlying system that favors large campaign contributors. This is what we need to change.

Chellie Pingree is the president and CEO of Common Cause.

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