Wednesday, January 11, 2006

OMB Watch: Letter From Gary Bass--Washington's Corruption Woes

Gary Bass at OMB Watch explains the serious problem we face with the buying and selling of congress by powerful moneyed interests. My only point of possible disagreement is simply this: we can pass all the laws we want, all the “reforms” we want and quite frankly I do not think that will end the problem. What I do believe is a first step however is the elimination of the “Personhood” of Corporations. I am not saying end corporations, but I am saying the “Personhood” issue must be resolved or in the end I do not think the buying and selling of Washington, D.C. will be ended. And I see the “Personhood” of corporations as the very heart of just about every problem we face in this nation. If we do not end corporate personhood, we will have more Abramoffs', Cunninghams', Delays', and the list is seemingly endless is it not with the corruption in congress? Also see: Two New Tax Cuts Benefit The Wealthy. – Jack


OMB Watch

Letter from Gary Bass: Washington's Corruption Woes
Published on 01/11/2006

Home : Publications : The OMB Watcher : OMB Watcher Vol. 7: 2006 : January 10, 2006 Vol. 7, No. 1 :

Guilty pleas by super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his partner Michael Scanlon, former key staffer of former-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, have put a spotlight on graft and corruption in Washington--and the obscene influence money exerts over politics today. Both Republican and Democratic leaders are now poised to offer "solutions" to this unseemly situation. These solutions, however, must do more than simply scratch the surface of this enormous problem. And dramatic changes to this dysfunctional dynamic of Washington politics are unlikely unless the public gets engaged.

It is easy to become jaded about stemming the flood of money which passes hands and influences politics in Washington. reports $2.42 billion was spent in the 2004 on federal elections in 2004, much more than the 2000 elections. Reported lobbying expenditures jumped 34 percent between 2000 and 2004 from $1.6 billion to $2.1 billion. At the same time, privately funded travel for members of Congress jumped 38 percent from $2.5 million to $3.5 million.

These figures ignore the gifts and the behind-the-scene deals, of which the Abramoff scandal is likely just the tip of the iceberg. It leaves out the myriad questionable ways money changes hands in Washington through entities such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's (R-TN) charity, World of Hope, which raised $4.4 million in 2004, including $2.7 million from just eighteen donors. According to the Associated Press, World of Hope donors included "several corporations with frequent business before Congress, such as insurer Blue Cross/Blue Shield, manufacturer 3M, drug maker Eli Lilly and the Goldman Sachs investment firm."

Upon closer examination, the conduits through which money flows become incredibly complex. For example, World of Hope's IRS Form 990 shows that Frist's long-time political fundraiser, Catignani & Bond, whose founding partner Linda Bond is the wife of Sen. Christopher Bond (R-MO), received $276,125 from the charity in 2004. In addition, the charity hired the law firm of Jill Holtzman Vogel, who is the wife of Frist's lawyer Alex Vogel. Holtzman Vogel, who is currently raising money for a run for Senate in Virginia in 2007, received thousands of dollars in contributions in 2005 from Catignani & Bond and from her husband, among numerous other sources, according to data released by the Virginia Public Access Project.

Despite the convoluted nature of its flow, one thing is certain: money is flowing through politics at an all-time high. Some might argue that stopping this flow is a bit like trying to holding a bursting dam at bay with a new leak springing up just as one is filled. It is easy to feel powerless as an outsider when it comes to the rich and powerful protecting the interests of the rich and powerful. A recent Washington Post-ABC News
poll, in fact, found that 58 percent of Americans believe the Abramoff case is evidence of "widespread corruption in Washington." The survey found broad support for reform in the wake of the Abramoff scandal, which is exactly why it is the perfect time to push for change. The public is outraged, and the moment exists to demand legislation to clean up the situation.

The nonprofit community has long complained about the influence money buys in Washington and argued that there should be a level playing field so that all voices are equally heard. This is a moment when the nonprofit sector should strongly advocate for just such a level playing field.

There are a number of solutions being discussed by Republican and Democrat leaders:

  1. More disclosure on lobbying contacts--more frequent and substantive reporting on each lobbying contact;

  2. Stricter limits, if not outright bans, on gifts to legislators, as well as on donated travel, whether through the use of the corporate jet or paid airfare;

  3. Disclosure of each fundraising event by lobbying firms and organizations that benefit federal candidates and the amount of money raised;

  4. Disclosure of contributions made to entities, such as universities, created in the name of a member of Congress , as well as contributions to entities established, financed, maintained or controlled by members of Congress, such as charities or foundations; and

  5. Strengthening the authority of the congressional ethics committees to investigate and punish violations.
More disclosure is certainly a necessary first step, particularly information being made available online in a searchable format. But disclosure is not enough. We need more regulation and enforcement--and ultimately we to move toward getting money out of politics. We have learned from successes in several states that we can genuinely change the rules of the game when it comes to elections. It is time to pick up on "clean money campaign" successes in Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Vermont, where public financing of some elections has become the rule.

In a representative democracy such as ours, lobbying is a constitutional right that should be cherished and firmly protected by the First Amendment. The right to petition our government--all branches of government--is key to not only ensuring government accountability but also making our government responsive to "we, the people." But moneyed interests now threaten accountability and responsiveness, not to mention the very integrity of our political system, and we must do something to address this threat.


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