Voters Demand End to Abramoff Era

I don't find myself agreeing with Washington, D.C.-based lobbyists on money in politics very often, let alone with the head of their trade association. But Paul Miller, the president of the American League of Lobbyists, hit the nail on the head when he told the Associated Press this weekend, "Let's not place the entire blame on lobbyists, so you can have a press conference, and then call us the next day and ask for campaign contributions."

Well, there you have it, straight from the horse's mouth. Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly argued that they are poised to break the link between lobbyists and lawmaking, but the real issue is breaking the link between lobbyists' money, especially the money they direct from their clients, and lawmaking.

The Democrats have proposed new House rules to get rid of meals and gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers, and some additional oversight on ethics. Don't get me wrong: It's all good. A ban on meals from lobbyists, for example, is a fine first step, and all Americans should see them as positive, though modest, moves.

But they beg the question: What part of these proposals would stop a lobbyist from handing to a member of Congress an envelop full of $2,100 campaign checks from their clients while on a "Dutch-date" lunch?

Americans gave Congress a mandate to go as far as they can go in order to root out corruption. Seventy-four percent of voters said corruption was an extremely or very important factor in determining for whom to vote, according to an exit poll, commissioned by the Associated Press, CNN, and the four major networks. Voters who rated corruption as extremely important chose Democratic candidates over Republicans by a whopping 60%-38% margin. To put this into context, corruption trailed only the economy (84%) and ranked ahead of terrorism (72%) and the war in Iraq (67%) as a vote-determining issue.

The Democrats may have got what they bought: Not only did news stories emerge one after another about all the corrupt pay-to-play politics in Washington, Democratic candidates spent their advertising budgets delivering negative messages against their Republican opponents for being in the pocket of lobbyists and well-heeled special interests, or favoring the drug or oil industries in exchange for campaign contributions. Public Campaign Action Fund's analysis of the most competitive House races in the country found three dozen that featured television ads linking the Republican candidate to congressional pay-to-play politics and scandals.

Those who watched the paid attention to the daily news were hit with a drip, drip, drip of congressional malfeasance -- convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff's fraud and influence peddling, Tom DeLay's indictment for money-laundering, two members convicted of receiving bribes, several more under FBI investigation, the mishandling and cover-up of the Mark Foley affair, and so on. At some point, voters just decided that enough was enough and cast out the bad apples.

But voters think the rot has seeped into the barrel -- and they want comprehensive change in how elections are paid for, not just convictions of bribe-taking politicians. In short, voters have given Democrats a mandate to clean up Congress. But are the Democrats up to the task?

We'll find out soon. But there's a real question bubbling to the surface. On one hand, more than 100 Democratic members of the next Congress have already gone on record in support of Clean Elections-or publicly financed elections-for congressional races. Modeled on successful laws in seven states and two cities, under Clean Elections candidates spend more time listening to voters than to campaign donors. Participating candidates agree to a spending limit and to raise little or no private money. They raise a large number of small donations to qualify for a set amount of public funding. On the other hand, congressional Democrats' fundraising has hit all-time highs, and some incumbent Democratic lawmakers have already opened up a line of "communication" with K Street, where money talks. Will the Democrats' fundraising prowess color their perception on the nature of the problems inherent in the private financing of our elections? Time will tell.

For now, the new leaders of Congress are talking the right game. They should back it up with real action to put voters first. The Democrats ought to think big, and ask the Republicans to join them, and propose to publicly finance all congressional elections. It can be paid for with less than what is unaccounted for in Halliburton's Iraq contract. Americans know that, right now, we have the best government money can buy. The problem is with who is doing the buying.

The voter mandate on corruption was significant, and it must not fall on deaf ears. Americans are thirsting for political leadership that thinks about what is right for all of us, not what's best for one party, or for the moneyed or connected few in Washington.

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