My brother called me yesterday. He's not in politics - he's a doctor at a public hospital in Denver. He told me he happened to be watching television, and heard about the Democrats 100 Hours agenda - and specifically, about the ethics "reforms" they are proposing. I put "reforms" in quotes because, from his tone, I could tell he was making the quoting motion with his hands when he said the word. He was appalled that Democrats were actually bragging about banning things that most people can't believe are actually legal in the first place.
"What are we going to hear next?," he asked. "Are they going to have a press conference bragging about a new bill that bans politicians from murdering each other?"
I hadn't actually thought of it this way before, but my brother is right: we now have a Congress basically trying to tell us it is somehow an act of courage to ban behavior that should never have been legal in the first place - behavior that both Democrats and Republicans engaged in for eons. The Hill Newspaper says the only thing Democrats are pushing for is to "ban lawmakers and staffers from accepting trips, gifts and meals from lobbyists."
Despite the fact that the New York Times reported that these moves "are not as comprehensive or far-reaching as changes already adopted by many state legislatures," they nonetheless seem positively revolutionary to people inside the Beltway because creatures of Washington spend their lives swimming up and down rivers of K Street cash.
But the average person in America is thinking the same thing my brother thinks: Are you freaking kidding me? Banning outright, in-your-face, envelopes-stuffed-with-cash bribery is heroic "reform?" Shouldn't that have happened, say, 100 years ago? And hey, Congress - if you are really cleaning stuff up - how come some giant corporation can still pull up to your campaign committees and leadership PACs and campaign offices with a dump truck of $100 bills?
The answer is because the current ethics "reform" as cure for political corruption is the equivalent of my brother giving one of his patients a green M&M as a supposedly "revolutionary" cure for a cancerous tumor, expecting him to believe it because the Mars Company once aired a commercial telling kids green M&Ms will help them hit homeruns in little league. The patient would look at my brother like he was insane - as we should with any politician who says with a straight face that the current ethics "reforms" are a serious effort to end the culture of corruption.
Everyone in Washington understands that the only way to really limit corruption is to publicly finance elections. That's the only constitutional way to provide resources to political candidates that do not come with the expectation of legislative favors. I want to repeat: EVERYONE IN WASHINGTON UNDERSTANDS THIS.
So why aren't Democrats in Congress pushing forward with a public financing bill? Seriously, do you even have to ask?
Just read today's Associated Press story about how Democratic Hill staffers-turned-corporate-lobbyists in Washington are partying like they were Republicans in 1994. Over there you have Dick Gephardt's former chief of staff opening up his own lobbying firm for companies like Shell Oil. Over there you have Nancy Pelosi's longtime chief of staff trading in his congressional ID for a lobbyist badge - this one for drug companies like Amgen. This truly is a "culture" in that selling out has become so prevalent, so widely-accepted it has become the invisible standard operating procedure in the nation's capital.
Thankfully, states are moving into the breach, with places like Maine and Arizona pioneering public financing systems. I'll be in Seattle on Friday evening through the Progressive States Network at an event with legislators sponsored by Washington Public Campaigns. Lawmakers there are planning to push public financing in their state.
This effort and others like it should make congressional lawmakers feel embarrassed for their pathetic "kabuki dance" on ethics. But then, in Washington, embarrassment is inversely related to how much cash a lobbyist is stuffing in a politician's pocket. The more money a lawmaker gets, the less they seem to care that regular folks like my brother sees them for the frauds they are.
E.J. Dionne once wrote a book asking "Why Americans Hate Politics?" He could have skipped writing 448 pages and written the obvious answer: They hate politics because of this kind of B.S.