Outlawing Legal Bribery

BY Joel Bleifuss

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According to a national exit poll, 42 percent of voters in November’s election said that corruption was the most important factor in deciding who they voted for. Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has pledged that, within 100 hours of taking up the gavel, House Democrats will “sever the ties between legislation and lobbyists.” And Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic caucus, sent a letter to colleagues in which he wrote, “Failing to deliver on this promise would be devastating to our standing with the public. … The voters are looking to us for leadership, and it starts with real reform.”

Some reforms will no doubt be enacted in the first 100 hours of the new Congress. How “real” they will be is another question.

Requiring members of Congress to disclose contacts with lobbyists is a no-brainer. Similarly, it is a good idea to ban congressmen-turned-registered-lobbyists from the floor of the House or Senate.

Other proposed reforms are window dressing, like extending the prohibition against members of Congress returning to lobby their colleagues from one year after leaving office to two. According to a July 2005 report by Public Citizen, 43 percent of members of Congress who left office since 1998 cashed in on K Street. Instead of trying to regulate it, Congress could close the revolving door, and prohibit former members and their staff from going to work as lobbyists.

Other clean government ideas are likely to go nowhere. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has proposed an office of public integrity. This independent commission, composed of retired judges and members of Congress, would have the power to investigate, subpoena documents and witnesses, and report back to the Department of Justice and the House and Senate ethics committees. His idea has few backers.

Then, there is the ban on lobbyists giving meals, trips and gifts to members of Congress. A no-brainer? More like a red herring. Lobbyists wield influence not by picking up the dinner tab, but as point people for the private interests that fund the campaigns of those elected to public office.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in the 2006 election the candidate who spent the most money won in 93 percent of the House races and 67 percent of the Senate races. The average cost of winning a House race was just shy of $1 million. A Senate seat comes closer to $7.8 million.

This should be a national scandal. But members of Congress, who as incumbents have a fundraising advantage over challengers, have no incentive to make a public issue of the legal bribery from which they benefit–and act on.

Take the national health care crisis. Approximately 50 percent of the more than 1 million people who filed for bankruptcy in 2006 did so because of illness or medical debt. What’s more, some 46 million Americans lack health insurance–putting them one major illness away from financial insolvency.

Yet, Congress shies away from dealing with this scandal. Could that be because in the 2006 midterm election the health care industry gave at least $72 million to federal candidates and political parties?

The one bright spot is that 108 House members of the 110th Congress have gone on record supporting public funding of congressional elections, including the 40 House members who have signed on as co-sponsors of the Clean Elections Bill. This legislation would institute a program of public financing of federal elections like that currently in states like Maine, Arizona and North Carolina. The Clean Elections Bill will be introduced by Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and John Tierney (D-Mass.) in the House, and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) in the Senate.

Passing this bill would be “real reform.” Rather than wait for Rahm Emmanuel and other Democrats to exhibit leadership, it’s up to progressives to demand that they follow us.


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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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