The Money Machine Remains
Writing for Tompaine.com recently about ethics and lobbying
reform, Alexandra Walker said what needed to be said: that
public financing for federal elections would
politicsâ€ by â€œturning off
the gushing spigot of special interest money that fuels
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.
Thatâ€™s it. And why is this so
Soon-to-be-former Congressman Tom DeLay.
Part of Mr. DeLayâ€™s legacy in
Washington will be his systematic weaving of lobbyists into
the fabric of the legislative process through the now
infamous â€œK Street
Project.â€ The K Street Project was part of Mr.
DeLayâ€™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.
DeLayâ€™s plan, act as a kind of monetary
feedback loop whereby Republican incumbents would have a
reliable source of campaign contributions year after
And it worked. Because our existing campaign finance system
not only allows for, but encourages K Street Projects. Mr.
DeLayâ€™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
I have no quarrel with Mr. DeLayâ€™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. DeLayâ€™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
See the article on TomPaine.com website