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Throw the Bums Out and Ban Them From Lobbying

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MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan has launched a laudable Get Money Out campaign to stop corporate contributions from corrupting politicians. The author of Greedy Bastards has not only gathered more than 300,000 signatures on his Get Money Out petition but managed to inspire politicians and others to create 13 proposals for a new anti-corruption amendment.

Here's the first problem. These proposals are dead on arrival. Why? Because, unlike the congresspeople who created them the vast majority of elected officials are perfectly happy with the status quo and will vote against them. Why? Because even if they get thrown out of office they'll wind up working as a lobbyist for the same firms who bribed them while they were in office.

Let's take The STOCK Act, authored by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.), which would ban trading by members of Congress guided by "nonpublic economic or political information." The problem with the bill? As The Huffington Post reported on Jan. 26, while the legislation bans trading, it does not bar legislators from returning favors for companies whose stock they hold. Sen. Scott Brown, who owns up to $50,000 of Bank of America stock, used his leverage to not only carve out an exemption to the Volcker Rule that allows banks to keep betting in the securities markets with taxpayer money but axed a plan that would have required banks to pay into an emergency fund to cover the costs of their failures.

So you can bet that when justifiably outraged voters replace Brown with Elizabeth Warren, he'll simply shrug it off since he'll look forward to a cushy job as a lobbyist for the banking industry.

This level of corruption is why nothing gets accomplished on Capitol Hill, whether it's campaign finance reform or financial dis-services reform. What typically happens when the members of Congress in charge of election reform have a discussion about it? In a 2006 hearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs committee in which the topic was dispensing contributions to members so they'll vote a certain way, not only did only two of the 16 members sit through the hearing but the man designated to draft a reform bill was now-presidential candidate Rick Santorum. In 2006 Santorum led all federal candidates in contributions from lobbyists and family members, taking in roughly $500,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). While in office, Santorum held regular breakfast meetings with K Street power players, which included circulating a list of open jobs at trade associations.

If Brown and Santorum wind up working for K Street after their most-likely Senatorial/Presidential defeats they won't be alone. As I pointed out in my book, America, Welcome to the Poorhouse, Public Citizen research shows that between 1998 and 2004 some 42 percent of former House members and 50 percent of former senators who were available to do so became registered lobbyists.

This corrupt culture is very likely why former Congressman and current "Morning Joe" TV host Joe Scarborough left his job. "My first term in Congress I was proud to vote for a plan to abolish all farm subsidies," Scarborough recounts in his book Rome Wasn't Burnt in a Day. As a result, lobbyists representing peanut interests began streaming into his office with checks as the subsidy vote approached in 1997. Same goes for former Congressman Dan Miller (R-FL), who attempted to kill subsidies to sugar growers a year earlier. Members of Congress who voted against him privately THANKED him for introducing the bill because it brought them extra contributions from the sugar PACs, according to the book, Speaking Freely; Washington Insiders Talk About Money in Politics.

Incredibly, with the exception of the Supreme Court, any judge must "recuse" him or herself from presiding over a trial in which there is a conflict of interest -- say, the judge owns a bunch of shares of stock in a company run by the defendant -- but a member of Congress can serve on a committee that oversees banks and take bribes from banks. How is it that the most generous donors to members of the Senate Banking Housing and Urban Affairs committee are companies involved in Finance, Insurance or Real Estate, doling out more than $36 million in the 2012 election cycle alone, according to the CRP? Same goes for members of the House Financial Services Committee, who collected more than $10.8 million from FIRE during that period.

Here's the second problem. If politicians are so corrupt they won't vote for laws that will make them honest, the only logical strategy would be a referendum prohibiting "conflicted contributions" that is voted on by the general public. Unfortunately -- and incredibly -- the U.S. Constitution doesn't provide for referendums at the federal level, making the U.S. one of the few countries that don't, according to Wikipedia.

The good news is that Americans are fed up with bad politicians. A record 84 percent of Americans say they disapprove of Congress, according to a Washington Post/ABC new public opinion poll -- the highest in nearly 40 years of polling. What's more, the dysfunctionality of the current Republican presidential candidates have virtually assured that Obama will be re-elected.

The bad new is even if Obama is re-elected he and the progressives in the Senate will still be hog-tied by a Republican-dominated obstructionist Congress. Democrats must redirect their energy from simply Occupying Wall Street/Capitol Hill/whatever to voting in progressives who vow to work for their constituents and never to be compromised by a future lobbying job. Otherwise it's business as usual.

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