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Our Democracy No Longer Works and the Problem Is Congress

At the center of our government lies a bankrupt institution: Congress. The US Congress has become the Fundraising Congress.

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The list is endless; the practice open and notorious. Since the time of Rome, historians have taught that while corruption is a part of every society, the only truly dangerous corruption comes when the society has lost any sense of shame. Washington has lost its sense of shame.

As fundraising becomes the focus of Congress--as the parties force members to raise money for other members, as they reward the best fundraisers with lucrative committee assignments and leadership positions--the focus of Congressional "work" shifts. Like addicts constantly on the lookout for their next fix, members grow impatient with anything that doesn't promise the kick of a campaign contribution. The first job is meeting the fundraising target. Everything else seems cheap. Talk about policy becomes, as one Silicon Valley executive described it to me, "transactional." The perception, at least among industry staffers dealing with the Hill, is that one makes policy progress only if one can promise fundraising progress as well.

This dance has in turn changed the character of Washington. As Kaiser explains, Joe Rothstein, an aide to former Senator Mike Gravel, said there was never a "period of pristine American politics untainted by money.... Money has been part of American politics forever, on occasion--in the Gilded Age or the Harding administration, for example--much more blatantly than recently." But "in recent decades 'the scale of it has just gotten way out of hand.' The money may have come in brown paper bags in earlier eras, but the politicians needed, and took, much less of it than they take through more formal channels today."

And not surprisingly, as powerful interests from across the nation increasingly invest in purchasing public policy rather than inventing a better mousetrap, wealth, and a certain class of people, shift to Washington. According to the 2000 Census, fourteen of the hundred richest counties were in the Washington area. In 2007, nine of the richest twenty were in the area. Again, Kaiser: "In earlier generations enterprising young men came to Washington looking for power and political adventure, often with ambitions to save or reform the country or the world. In the last fourth of the twentieth century such aspirations were supplanted by another familiar American yearning: to get rich."

Rich, indeed, they are, with the godfather of the lobbyist class, Gerald Cassidy, amassing more than $100 million from his lobbying business.

Members of Congress are insulted by charges like these. They insist that money has no such effect. Perhaps, they concede, it buys access. (As former Representative Romano Mazzoli put it, "People who contribute get the ear of the member and the ear of the staff. They have the access--and access is it.") But, the cash-seekers insist, it doesn't change anyone's mind. The souls of members are not corrupted by private funding. It is simply the way Americans go about raising the money necessary to elect our government.

But there are two independent and adequate responses to this weak rationalization for the corruption of the Fundraising Congress. First: whether or not this money has corrupted anyone's soul--that is, whether it has changed any vote or led any politician to bend one way or the other--there is no doubt that it leads the vast majority of Americans to believe that money buys results in Congress. Even if it doesn't, that's what Americans believe. Even if, that is, the money doesn't corrupt the soul of a single member of Congress, it corrupts the institution--by weakening faith in it, and hence weakening the willingness of citizens to participate in their government. Why waste your time engaging politically when it is ultimately money that buys results, at least if you're not one of those few souls with vast sums of it?

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