David Donnelly

Will CNN's Democratic Presidential Debate Tackle America's Broken Campaign Finance System? Here's Some Suggestions How

At the second Republican presidential primary debate in California, Jeb Bush was asked whether he’s a puppet of big donors. He said no, obviously. Politicians aren’t allowed to admit their donors influence them, even though most Americans believe they do.

CNN’s Jake Tapper was right to ask about money in politics at the debate. It’s increasingly becoming a major issue on both sides of the campaign, with candidates offering any number of policies to address the problem and criticizing others for their ties to donors and special interests.

When the cameras are on during the first Democratic debate on Tuesday, among the most powerful people in the room will be the moderators: CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon, Dana Bash, and Juan Carlos Lopez. They will control what topics come up and whether questions require follow up. Our broken campaign finance system—and what to do about it—must be on that list.

Eighty-four percent of Americans—majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents—believe money has too much influence in politics and 85 percent believe we need either fundamental changes to or a complete rebuilding of our campaign-finance law, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. Two-thirds of Americans think the country’s political system is dysfunctional, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll. Three-quarters of Americans believe our federal government is corrupt, according to Gallup.

The moderators should know that the current system erects financial barriers that limit opportunities for many female, African-American, Latino, and Asian American candidates. Research by the Women’s Donor Network showed that out of 42,000 elected officials nationwide, 90% are white and 71% are male.

While important, most Americans don’t need polls or studies to prove this point. We know it in our bones. When we look at Washington we see a city where big money calls the shots. We see a political system in which ordinary people with a commitment to serve their communities stand little chance of ever making it to Congress. If Democratic presidential candidates want to show voters they are serious about making a government and economy that works for everyday Americans, at their first debate, they will talk about what they plan to do to fix this.

A few who will take the debate stage already agree on the right solutions.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Gov. Martin O’Malley all agree that to transform our government into one that’s truly of, by, and for the people, we need to create a system that matches small donations with limited public funds to amplify the voices of everyday people. They agree we need to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that paved the way for super PACs and unlimited corporate spending in politics. And they all agree we need more transparency in political spending, achieved through legislative means and executive action.

Former Sens. Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb, the other invited participants, have spoken out about the detrimental influence of big money in politics but haven’t yet issued clear platforms on what to do about it.

So instead of a question about whether the system is corrupt, moderators should ask candidates what they’ll do to fix it.

Here are some suggestions:

• To give regular people a bigger voice in politics, at least three of you have said Congress should create a system that would match small donations with public funds. How would you pressure Congress to pass this legislation?
• How many of you are willing to pledge today that you will only appoint Supreme Court Justices that will overturn Citizens United?
• There has been a big increase in political spending by groups that don’t disclose their donors. Would you use administrative action and regulatory power to add transparency to such spending?
• Throughout his campaigns, President Obama said he’d work to reform the broken campaign finance system. So far, he hasn’t done much other than give speeches. How would your administration be different?
• Poll after poll shows voters are cynical about the political system and distrust elected officials. What will you do to convince the American public that you can fix our broken political system and give every American an equal voice?

By asking these questions and forcing the candidates to answer them with a real plan, this debate could begin educating Americans that there are candidates who are serious about reforming a broken Washington. After all, voters find it hard to believe a candidate on any issue if he or she isn’t serious about fixing our democracy.

As respected Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg wrote this spring, working-class voters are better able to believe in a candidate’s overall policy agenda when they first hear that candidates “understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed. Championing reform of government and the political process is the price of admission with these voters.”

The debate over whether big money influences politics is over. Everyone knows wealthy donors have more of a say in government than ordinary Americans. Democratic candidates agree we need to change the system. The moderators should ask serious, probing questions about making their proposals a reality, not just political rhetoric.

7 Questions About What's Next For New York State's Working Families Party After Its Cuomo Endorsement

On Saturday, the Working Families Party voted to provide its November ballot line to Governor Andrew Cuomo following several weeks of negotiations between him, party leaders, labor leaders, and prominent elected officials. Zephyr Teachout, who announced her candidacy just on Friday, contested the party’s endorsement. Zephyr – a former board member of PCAF and a friend – mounted an aggressive challenge to Cuomo with the WFP delegates at the convention and lost a floor vote 59-41%, while winning the hearts and minds by 99-1%.

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Clean Elections Solution Arrives in Congress

"Former President Bill Clinton will drop by a spinning exercise class on Thursday on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and speak briefly about health care and his wife's candidacy to more than 30 women and men wearing spandex, sweat shorts and the like. ...

"The spinners are each paying $2,300 per bike -- the maximum allowable donation to Mrs. Clinton's campaign." -- New York Times, 3/20/0

All in unison now: The whole campaign finance system is spinning out of control.

Candidates for the presidency are sized up by the media for their fundraising ability, not their ideas. To be considered a viable candidate a person will have to prove that he or she can raise $100 million by the end of this year, or be consigned to second tier status.

At the congressional level, members we elect to do the people's business are forced to do their own fundraising business first. Vulnerable Democratic members of the House, for example, were told recently that they should have $1 million in the bank by the time June 30th rolls around, more than a year and a half before their next election. That's an astounding figure -- members of Congress are raising roughly $38,000 per week every week to stay on pace.

The same story can be told about Senate races. In 2002, the average winner spent $5.4 million. Just four years later, in 2006, the average winner spent $9.7 million.

Think about the price we all pay in the lost time members of Congress spend raising money rather than solving the problems facing this country. When Congress could be wrestling with the growing threats to homeownership caused by reckless lenders, they're off courting campaign donations from the banking industry. When Congress could be addressing the serious problem of health care in this country, insurance company lobbyists and pharmaceutical executives are hosting fundraisers for key committee members.

It is an unsustainable system, and one that needs changing as soon as possible.

That's why yesterday's introduction of the bipartisan Fair Elections Now Act by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) is as timely as it is necessary. Modeled after successful "Clean Elections"-style public financing laws at the state level, the bill would level the playing field and put voters in charge.

The Fair Elections Now Act is a straightforward reform that encourages more participation from ordinary voters. Candidates who agree to strict spending limits and to take no large dollar donations can qualify for public funding by raising a specific number of small contributions -- usually five dollars -- from people in their state. Instead of raising contributions from the wealthiest of the wealthy, Senate candidates would be required to raise small contributions from a massive numbers of people back in their home district. If they're outspent by an opponent or an outside group, they can receive fair fight funds, up to a limit, to respond. Once they've qualified, their fundraising is done, and they can spend the campaign walking, talking, and listening to voters.

Arizona and Maine have seen solid success with similar systems. In Arizona, nine of the eleven statewide officeholders ran and won under a Fair Elections-style system. In Maine, 84 percent of the State Legislature did as well.

"Five years ago today, the Senate passed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms banning huge soft-money donations to political parties. Earlier this year, we passed lobbying reforms," said Senator Durbin at a press conference. "But the truth is, we can pass all the lobbying and ethics reforms in the world and it won't solve the real problem. Special interest money will always find new loopholes to work its way into campaigns until we change the system fundamentally."

Groups backing this proposal represent an unprecedented reform coalition whose members exceed 60 million Americans. And that's good, and necessary, because this is a big change for incumbent members of Congress. A major campaign is in the works, including petition drives to sign up tens of thousands of citizen co-sponsors, public education efforts through letters to the editor, and setting up scores of in-district meetings with members of Congress.

Similar legislation will be introduced by Reps. John Tierney (D-MA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), and Todd Platts (R-PA) in the House.

At the press conference on the Senate bill, Senator Specter said, "It has been a mystery to me, and I have studied the Constitution to some substantial extent, how money can be equated with speech."

That's exactly right, Senator. Now it's time to level the playing field for candidates and voters alike.

McConnell Gets His Payback from the Debt Industry

Tonight, President George W. Bush will speak at Louisville's Seelbach Hilton at a $2,000-a-plate fundraiser for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to pay him back for his support for the White House's policies.

The event comes roughly on the second anniversary of the day the U.S. Senate passed a sweeping bankruptcy law overhaul, the Bankruptcy Abuse Protection and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCA). Despite widespread criticism from both consumer organizations and conservative talk show hosts, Sen. McConnell, then Senate Majority Whip, provided the legislative muscle to push through that bill. It was one of the President's priorities.

But the bankruptcy law has made it harder for Americans to get out of debt. It imposes credit counseling requirements and a means test designed to push more people into Chapter 13 bankruptcy, denying them the right to fully discharge debts.

Moreover, the bankruptcy bill is one of the most egregious examples of pay-to-play politics in recent memory. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the credit card and commercial banking industries have given $224 million to federal candidates and political parties since 1989, contributing 62 percent percent to Republicans and 38 percent percent to Democrats. The industry greased the skids for over a decade to be able to write preferential legislation into law.

Senator McConnell managed the floor fight to pass the bill, and he has received more than $535,000 in campaign contributions from the credit card and commercial banking industries. Just a few months before the bill's passage, McConnell raked in $60,000 from executives at two financial giants, UBS and Citigroup, at a New York City fundraiser. He was served well by his chief fundraiser, former banking lobbyist Alison Crombie Kinnahan.

Senator McConnell contends the bill was necessary to stop bankruptcy fraud. Yet bankruptcy lawyers and judges call it a "monumental failure," adding red tape without limiting fraud. Ninety percent of people who declare bankruptcy do so because of job loss, medical expenses, or divorce. Kentucky, it should be noted, ranks 9th in the country in bankruptcy rates, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute.

This story speaks volumes about how well the moneyed interests are heard in Washington, and whose voices are left out. Sometimes money helps pass a law. Other times it buys complacency in face of an emerging crisis. Let's stay with the credit card industry.

Students are particularly hard hit by an industry that aggressively markets on college campuses. Author Robert Manning estimates that credit card companies pay $1 billion to 300 universities for the right to set up tables on the quad and offer bookstore promotions. One industry insider at a major credit card company revealed that students constitute 25 percent of their new account goals. At a time when families and students are feeling more and more squeezed by tuition hikes, many turn to the offer of "easy money" through credit cards for textbooks, school supplies and other necessities. Final-year college students have an average balance of $2,864, and a quarter of them are putting their tuition on plastic.

Credit card debt is not priceless, as one ad wants us to believe. Young Americans aged 18 to 25 have seen their average credit card balances grow by 24 percent from 2001 to 2005. Bankruptcy filings among those under 25 doubled in the 1990s. Multiple surveys and books have chronicled the devastating impact of high debt on young adults' ability to choose a career, live independently, buy a house, start a family, and save for their own futures.

What does this have to do with President Bush, Senator McConnell, and fundraising?

We can all but guarantee that the stories of indebted young people won't be discussed over dinner with President Bush and Senator McConnell this evening. Nor will donors ask McConnell about oversight of credit card industry practices on college campuses. It is safe to assume that no one will ask Senator McConnell about cracking down on the most abusive practices of the industry, like tripling the interest rate for one late payment.

Even if these issues were raised tonight, Congress -- and Senator McConnell -- have shown who they really owe: campaign donors, like the credit card industry. They are the ones that foot the bill for the polls, television and radio ads, recorded calls, and direct mail that sugar-coats who politicians really represent in Washington.

As the mountain of debt young Americans carry grows larger each year, students know their obligations to repay will be sticking with them for life.

Given how Senator McConnell and Congress paid back the credit card companies and commercial banks so handsomely two years ago, the campaign finance system may not be that much different. Every election puts politicians further in debt, just not to us.

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.

Ralph Reed Did Not Repent

Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, has become the first political casualty of the Jack Abramoff lobbying and money scandals with his loss yesterday in Georgia's lieutenant governor's race to a previously unknown state senator. Reed had nursed ambitions of someday running for high office, even the White House, but his defeat suggests otherwise.

His loss also suggests that other politicians may be vulnerable to voter anger, unless politicians repent for their big money ways.

The judgment delivered by Georgia voters was swift. With 97 percent of precincts reporting as of 9:37 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Reed trailed Casey Cagle by 12 percent, or approximately 49,000 voters, after a blistering attack campaign about Reed's role in the pay-to-play system, where money counts more than morals.

Campaign Money Watch (www.campaignmoney.org/), a project of Public Campaign Action Fund, delivered part of this attack with television and radio advertising connecting Reed's work for Abramoff, as well as a record phone message delivered to 200,000 GOP voters over the last critical days when the race swung dramatically in Cagle's direction.

The voters' judgment was also just. Reed's electoral fate was delivered by the Christian conservative voters that make up a Republican primary electorate in a Deep South state like Georgia -- the same voters Reed was said to understand better than any other Republican operative. Reed's downfall was due not just to the fact he did wrong. It's that he did wrong, failed to repent, and betrayed the very voters he needed on Election Day.

He had a lot for which to repent. Reed took money from Abramoff's American Indian casino clients through a variety of conduits and manipulated Christian groups to act as fronts to oppose gambling competition for the tribes. He helped Abramoff oppose legislation to extend protections to women and children employed by sweatshops in the Northern Mariana Islands, despite the fact that our government had reported that the employers forced employees to enter the sex-tourism trade. When these immigrant workers inevitably became pregnant, they were forced to have abortions.

Reed never once said that it was wrong to take the casino money and use Christian groups as fronts. And he refused to acknowledge that it was widely known what was happening in the Marianas -- ABC's 20/20 did an expose in the 1998 -- years before he took on the lobbying work.

Clearly, Georgia voters understood this better than Reed. But the message they sent was not just to Reed. They sent a powerful message to Democrats and Republicans alike around the country: Politicians who side with donors and big moneyed interests and not with voters can't depend on their base for turning out for them or staying faithful on Election Day.

This spells trouble for scandal-ridden members of Congress like Richard Pombo, R-Calif.; Charles Taylor, R-N.C.; Bob Ney, R-Ohio; and Alan Mollohan, D-W.V., as well as Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who all find themselves in electoral hot water because of money and lobbying scandals.

And it also should put every vulnerable member of Congress on notice. Those who have voted in the interests of their contributors on issues critical to voters on prescription drug costs, renewable energy, and others should have to answer for their actions. With the backdrop of the Abramoff, Cunningham and DeLay money scandals, voters are in a throw-the-bums-out kind of mood, and candidates who capitalize on this by showing how they're going to clean up Congress (like by signing the Voters First Pledge supported by Common Cause, Public Campaign Action Fund, Public Citizen, and US PIRG can tap into voter discontent.

Ralph Reed might once have been the "Right Hand of God," as Time magazine famously once called him, but yesterday he learned that if candidates don't practice what they preach, they're in for a return to private life. And this year, candidates better find religion on cleaning up politics.

Google Goes K Street

[Editor's Note: This op-ed originally appeared on CNet News.]

Google is setting up a political operation in Washington and collecting big-name lobbyists with Republican connections faster than you can search the Web for Jack Abramoff.

At first, I thought it was another of those famed Google April Fools' Day jokes, just a week early. They may have pioneered a new business model, but they're apparently relying on politics-as-usual. The question is, why do they have to?

Google argues that it has to play the game to maintain the ability of all Internet users to get quality, high-speed access to the Web. If the Internet service providers -- Comcast, TimeWarner and others -- are able to charge for transmitting information over the pipes, the Internet could become segregated into haves and have-nots. This is why Network neutrality -- or Net neutrality -- is important, and it is a good thing that Google is opposing the ISPs on this.

Google wants "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible." But what doesn't make sense is the choice to abandon unconventional ways. Google appears to have embraced the rules of the so-called K Street Project. For a decade or more, Republicans in Congress have used the K Street Project to strong-arm businesses to hire only Republican lobbyists and to make donations only to GOP candidates.

Google has hired Washington powerhouse lobbying firm Podesta Mattoon. Though known as a bipartisan firm, Podesta Mattoon will probably hand this account to Lauren Maddox, a former staffer for Newt Gingrich. And Google has retained public relations flak Stuart Roy, recently of indicted Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay's staff, to direct its political PR and strategy. They are also setting up a D.C. office and have hired old Republican hand Harry W. Clark, who claims the company will soon hire a political director with ties to Republicans.

And it won't end with hires: "The folks I've talked to," Clark told The New York Times, "everybody recognizes that the employee contributions were weighted heavily toward Democrats, and they're waiting to see a course correction." (Since 2001, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Google employees have donated $361,294 to federal candidates, parties and political action committees, with all but roughly $10,000 going to Democrats or their allies.)

But is a course correction the right move? Is there a better way to conduct politics, perhaps found within Google's own business model?

What would a true Google approach to politics look like? It probably wouldn't wear a suit, charge $500 an hour or perpetuate an exclusive campaign finance system in which a few well-connected corporations, interest groups and wealthy donors win out while the rest of us get left behind. Google has retained public relations flak Stuart Roy, recently of indicted Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay's staff, to direct its political PR and strategy.

Take the Net neutrality debate. Instead of obeying consultants in Washington who will urge Google executives to give more to Republicans (or to Democrats if they take back Congress), what if Google worked to hand the Net neutrality issue over to the people? Instead of setting up an office in Washington, what about setting up a virtual campaign center on the Web?

Let's make this debate about what is right about democracy in America by engaging citizens and asking them to join the fray. Americans don't need a clash of the corporate titans, with both sides claiming to be pro-consumer. We don't want to be spoken for. If Net neutrality is won with an insider strategy without engaging real people, it will be fought all over again next year.

It's time for some new, citizen-focused paradigms in politics, in how campaigns are run -- like the Clean Elections bill moving through the California state legislature -- and in how people relate to elected officials on important issues. It is already happening all around us with open-source approaches to politics like CivicSpace and Colorado-based ProgressNow, the political blogosphere with sites like DailyKos, and online fundraising. Why would Google place its bets on K Street rather than nurturing, pioneering and accelerating this innovation and change?

"Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one," company founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin said when they announced the innovative IPO auction almost two years ago.

So, Google, what shall it be? A complete political upgrade? Or politics as usual?

The Ethical Albatross

Monday's stunning reversal by U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugarland, and the Republicans in Congress on the so-called DeLay Rule caught all by surprise, including those of us in the midst of the effort to hold politicians accountable for these types of actions.

But it shouldn't have. There are three reasons why DeLay caved on the provision, which was enacted by the House Republican conference back in mid-November and was designed to protect him if he gets indicted for his role in the on-going investigation into corporate fund-raising in Texas politics: constituent anger; a measurable rebellion among House members that emboldened House Democrats; and the growing sense that DeLay is becoming politically radioactive.

But first some background. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle has been conducting an investigation into possibly illegal corporate campaign fund-raising in the 2002 elections by a DeLay-created political action committee known as TRMPAC. Eight corporations and three individuals have already been indicted by a grand jury for their role. All three individuals have strong ties to DeLay, making DeLay's potential indictment a matter of great speculation.

Already two of the eight corporations, including Sears Roebuck & Co., have recently turned state's witness.

The corporate fund-raising led to a Republican majority in the Texas Legislature that was willing and eager to pass DeLay's unprecedented plan to re-redistrict congressional lines in Texas, skewing them toward electing more GOP members of Congress. And that is what happened. DeLay returned to Congress after the November elections with five extra GOP members from Texas.

These new House members meant an expanded GOP majority in Congress. That majority expressed its immediate gratitude toward DeLay by rewriting its rules in a secret, Republicans-only vote, to allow members of party leadership to maintain their positions even if indicted. The rule quickly was named in honor of its main beneficiary, and that, in part, became its undoing.

Faced with citizen pressure from all over the country, DeLay blinked. The first reason he did was that members of Congress were hearing from constituents that they didn't like the DeLay Rule. One member of Congress, Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., summed it up in two words: Constituents reacted.

Fueled by bloggers, enterprising journalists and public interest groups, thousands of constituents called members of Congress throughout November and December to ask where they stood on the DeLay Rule vote. The issue wasn't going away.

The second reason DeLay & Co. backtracked was that they simply didn't have the votes to win on the floor of the House. While the DeLay Rule only applied to Republicans, Democrats smelled an opportunity and were preparing a straight up-or-down vote on whether House rules would allow any member of Congress to maintain a position in leadership after being indicted. That vote was to have happened Tuesday, the day after DeLay proposed revoking his rule.

I'm convinced that the Democrats wouldn't have pushed for this vote if it weren't for the prospects of winning. A blog I run, the Daily DeLay, tracked responses from members of Congress from constituents' inquiries and news reports and built the only comprehensive and public record of where members stood on the matter. In the end, 23 Republican members of Congress went on record as having voted against the DeLay Rule and 10 to 12 more said they missed the vote but would have opposed it if they were there, or were given another chance. Outgoing House Ethics Chairman Joel Hefley, R-Colo., issued a timely statement saying he was siding with the Democrats. The potential of cleaving off 20-30 Republicans emboldened the Democratic minority, which pressed to take the issue to the floor. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, DeLay retreated in defeat.

Lastly, DeLay's capitulation in the face of pressure signals his increasingly negative public image, and the rising wariness moderate Republicans and those in competitive districts have about being too closely associated with him. In short, in the past DeLay's ability to raise big money was an unqualified plus. Now it is becoming more of an ethical albatross. In the words of Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., "I feel like we have just taken a shower."

I, for one, am not sure just a shower is needed. Members of Congress leave office on their own accord, or they are forced out by events or voters. With corruption and ethical scandals swirling around DeLay and all he touches, he received just 55 percent of the vote in his district, his lowest total ever. It is just a matter of time before we find out which end is in store for Tom DeLay and his brand of big money politics.

Selling the White House to the Top Bidder

Last week Dick Cheney claimed that unemployment numbers and consumer spending figures weren't an accurate reflection on how well the economy was doing because they didn't account for... eBay?!?

"That's a source that didn't even exist 10 years ago: 400,000 people make some money trading on eBay," said the Vice President in Cincinnati.

In fact, if anyone has profited off the eBay phenomenon, it's the Bush administration. While a few hundred thousand people may have made "some money" from selling things like their vintage Star Wars action figures on the online auction site, the Bush/Cheney White House has auctioned off policy left and right to the highest-bidding special interest contributors.

Here's a quick run down of three areas:

Medicare. For his two presidential campaigns, President George W. Bush received at least $5.2 million from insurance/HMO industry and $1.4 million from pharmaceutical industry. HMOs got $12 billion in subsidies to lure people out of Medicare, and $6.8 billion for privatized "health savings accounts." Pharmaceutical drug corporations got $139 billion in projected profits, and prohibitions on the re-importation or federal bulk purchasing of prescription drugs, both of which would lead to lower prices.

What did seniors get? Higher prescription drug prices, and managed care through the shifting of Medicare service to HMOs, and the highest Medicare premium hike in history.

Air Quality. Bush received $1.3 million from electric utilities industry in 2000 and 2004. Electric utilities got a rollback in the Clean Air Act, allowing coal-fired plants to expand production without updating the pollution controls. Along with it, utilities might possibly get a "get out of jail free card" from pending lawsuits brought under the provisions that Bush's EPA just gutted.

What did we get? With more pollution from these plants children and seniors – the most vulnerable among us – are likely to experience an increase in asthma attacks among children and seniors.

Tax Policies. President Bush raked in $18.4 million from those associated with commercial banks and securities and accounting firms. What did they get? For starters, Bush hasn't cracked down on offshore tax shelters. During his term there has been a sharp decline in audits of corporations. And let's not forget that capital gains, dividend and personal taxes were cut so much that investors pay a lower rate than workers.

What did middle class families get? A bigger share of tax burden to be sure. Here's just one example: the government loses $85 billion a year in lost revenue from the off-shore tax loophole alone.

Examples of special interest influence over the policies of this Administration are everywhere. The debate in this election should not be about who did what 30 years ago. It should be about who gave away the store as payback for campaign contributions, and who put the needs of wealthy contributors before the public interest.

Industrial Money Laundry-ing

On September 30, 2003, Richard T. Farmer, chairman of the Cincinnati-based Cintas Corp. -- the largest industrial launderer in the country -- co-hosted a $1.7 million fundraiser for President Bush.

On November 20, 2003, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released new draft regulations that, if adopted, will weaken federal safeguards for employees who handle poison-soaked "shop" towels. The new rule would exempt industrial laundries like Cintas "from federal hazardous and solid waste requirements for shop towels contaminated with toxic chemicals."

This is no small exemption. Each year, 3.8 billion industrial shop towels, which are used to clean up toxic materials or spills in the workplace, or to wipe-down machinery, are sent to be cleaned.

The Bush Administration's proposed rollback is particularly worrisome because Cintas has been found to have repeatedly violated worker safety and environmental protection standards.

"We were never told about all the chemicals we were forced to handle, and never really warned about the toxic dangers from these chemicals. The towels were often in plastic bags dripping with solvent. Our supervisors knew all about this," says Mark Fragola, of New Haven, Conn., a former driver for Cintas Corp.

According to the EPA, the rule will also will lead to higher profits for Cintas. The EPA predicts "this proposal would... save affected facilities over $30 million per year."

For the record, Cintas and Farmer, are already doing quite well. Cintas made $249.3 million in profits in fiscal year 2003 and Farmer is ranked by Forbes as the 140th wealthiest man in America with a net worth of $1.5 billion.

Farmer is a "Ranger," meaning that he has personally raised more than $200,000 for the President's re-election campaign. In addition, Farmer was instrumental in George W. Bush's 2000 campaign. Not only was he was a "Pioneer" in 2000 (having pledged to raise $100,000), Farmer and his wife gave the second most of any family to the Republican Party in 2000.

Since the 2000 election cycle, Cintas and its employees have given almost $2.2 million to federal candidates and parties, with 100 percent of that money going to Republicans. So far this election cycle, in addition to Farmer, 15 Cintas executives have contributed to Bush, with eight of them giving the maximum $2,000 contribution.

Farmer told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1997, "I don't expect any special treatment when I give my money. All I want is decent government."

What is "decent" government from Cintas Corp.'s point of view? It could be a government that rewrites environmental law to increase their profits, and one that gives them big government contracts. In addition to the EPA draft regulation, Cintas, as the nation's largest launderer, would likely to have been in line to receive a contract for laundry services from the Department of Veterans Affairs if the VA had proceeded with plans to privatize laundry services at facilities around the U.S. Richard T. Farmer served on Bush's Veterans Affairs transition team.

But the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 600,000 federal workers, sent a cease-and-desist letter telling the VA that contracting out the services would be in violation of federal law.

Will Cintas get its way? They have a long history of bullying and silencing their opponents. The public comment period on the EPA rules is open until April 9. Sierra Club, United Students Against Sweatshops and UNITE have joined together to oppose the EPA proposal that helps Cintas Corporation at its workers' expense. Cintas has sued UNITE for defamation, and sued a shareholder activist to silence his efforts to bring forth shareholder resolutions about Cintas' labor conditions.

Stories like this that expose the connections between the private gains of corporate America with the political gains of elected officials are all too common in the nation's capital, and in the Bush White House. Sadly, the health and safety of workers and the protection of our environment could become the casualties.

David Donnelly is director of the Washington, DC- and Boston-based nonprofit Campaign Money Watch. This op-ed was adapted from Campaign Money Watch's weekly Special Interest Spotlight, a regular email report on the influence of special interest money in the Bush Administration.


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