Democrats must step up to the plate, as opposed to the trough, and pledge real lobby reform if they get control of Congress next session.
After the Jack Abramoff-Tom DeLay scandal broke numerous others began receiving some media play. Notable among these was the network of lobbyists and Congressmen associated with contractor Brent Wilkes, which included now-imprisoned ex-Congressman Duke Cunningham and Mitchell Wade, his confessed briber. The Wilkes web was extensively detailed in an article by Dean Calbreath in the San Diego Union Tribune, February 5, 2006. It has since been discovered that Wilkes connections even extended into the upper echelons of the CIA.
What must be understood is that the complex networks of relationships centered on Abramoff and Wilkes comprise just small subsets of the much larger network involving Congressmen, contractors, and lobbyists. By far the most dominant player, the network controller, if you will, was Tom DeLay. The Wilkes Group is but one instance of the pay-to-play scheme encompassed by the K-Street Strategy devised and imposed by Congressman DeLay, Grover Norquist, Senator Rick Santorum, and others. Their plan to require the K-Street lobbyists to hire only Republicans, to deal only with Republican members of Congress, to contribute only to Republicans, and to bring to a vote only bills that were supported by a majority of the Republicans in the House, nearly succeeded in imposing a permanent, iron grip upon the House. DeLays attempt to strengthen this grip by engineering a second post-census redistricting of Texas, which produced 5 additional Republican members of Congress, resulted in his undoing. Indicted in Texas for the laundering of political funds, DeLay was forced to give up his position as Majority Leader of the House, and, indeed, his seat in Congress itself. Similarly, the excesses of Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, a DeLay ex-staffer, were so flagrant and flamboyant that the resulting media attention and federal investigations resulted in guilty pleas by both and are providing leads for numerous other ongoing investigations.
But however effective DeLay and other Republicans were in implementing the K-Street Strategy and keeping their troops in line, it was the influx of corporate money that ultimately financed the entire process. Large corporations employ their own lobbyists and are the major employers of others who are partners in or are employees of lobbying firms. Major corporations also frequently make large contributions to favorite charities of members of Congress, and in doing so purchase face-time with them at such events as charitable golf tournaments. These individual contributions have been as large as $250,000. Individual lobbyists also personally make numerous campaign contributions to those members whose support they need, and can direct political contributions by their clients as well, often bundling many such into large total amounts. In addition, they often arrange for corporate jets to ferry Congressmen around the country for the price of a first class ticket, far below the actual cost (e.g. Wilkes and DeLay). The flow of dollars from corporations to lobbyists, to Congressmens personal campaign funds, to their leadership PACs, and to national campaign committees provides the fuel for the entire corrosive machine.
With the guilty plea by Abramoff and three of DeLays ex-staff persons, and the demise of the Alexander Strategy Group (which had received large contracts from Abramoff and Wilkes and which also employed the wives of Congressmen DeLay and Doolittle), there was a flurry of activity in Congress in setting up ethical advisory committees and introducing lobby reform legislation. But not much has actually come of it. Government watchdog groups are in agreement that bills likely to pass in both the House and the Senate are woefully inadequate.
Several key elements of lobby reform are contained in the recommendations of Fred Wertheimer in his testimony to the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, U.S. Senate, January 25, 2006. Mr. Wertheimer has focused on the issue of money in politics for many decades, and shares the opinion that the legislation currently under consideration by the Republican Congress, if passed, would not be effective in preventing the types of abuses that have occurred these past several years. The following proposals are extracted from his testimony:
To break the lobbyist money nexus, Democracy 21 has joined with other reform groups in recommending the following reforms:
First, campaign contributions from lobbyists and lobbying firm PACs to federal candidates should be capped at $200 per candidate per election. Contributions to national parties and leadership PACs should be capped at $500 per election cycle.
Second, lobbyists and lobbying firms should be prohibited from soliciting, arranging or delivering campaign contributions, and also from serving as officials on candidate campaign committees and leadership PACs.
Third, lobbyists, lobbying firms and lobbying organizations should be prohibited from paying for, or arranging payments for, events honoring members of Congress, such as parties at national conventions, from contributing or arranging contributions to entities established or controlled by members of Congress, such as foundations, and from financing Members conferences, retreats and the like.
At a minimum, public disclosure must be required by lobbyists for any of these uses of money that Congress does not act to prohibit.
In addition, gifts and privately financed and subsidized travel for Members should be banned as discussed below.
Grover Norquist claims that 270 members of Congress have taken the no tax pledge promoted by his Americans for Tax Reform. This has turned out to be an empty pledge, of course, without also pledging no increase in government borrowing, which has reached record heights under this Republican Congress. Neither did Norquist himself pledge not to take money from Jack Abramoff or his casino clients. Gambling revenues are okay, it seems, but not legitimate tax revenue.
But it is past time to blame only Republicans. It is time for the Democrats to step up to the plate, as opposed to the trough. They may not be able to determine what, if any, lobby reform legislation gets through the Republican-controlled Congress, but they do have control over what they promise to do if they should become the majority party in either House after the November elections. The proposals by Wertheimer would be a good place to start. Democrats running for Congress should publicly, collectively, and irrevocably promise to enact legislation that would decisively change the culture of corruption about which they have been complaining. They should not be deterred because one or two of their own have apparently succumbed to some of the same temptations. It is time for a Democratic Contract with America on this issue. A pledge to pass legislation breaking the tie between special interest money, the lobbyists it hires and the Congressmen it corrupts should be a slam dunk now, in view of the widespread abuse that has come to light in recent months and the numerous investigations that are still underway.
Members and candidates for Congress, what are you waiting for? Citizens are watching, waiting, and ready to vote for those who take the pledge against corruption. But be warned. You must follow through. You must not only promise reform, you must enact and abide by reform. That large numbers of candidates will actually take such a pledge may seem to be an empty hope, but it may also be our last hope to reform a corrupt system.
Laurence A.Toenjes is retired from the University of Houston ?s Department of Sociology where he was a researcher with The Sociology of Education Research Group. Toenjes received his doctorate in economics from Southern Illinois University.