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Micah Sifry Headshot

How to End the Selling of Washington

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The long-running scandal of business-as-usual in Washington--the selling of access, influence, legislative favors, regulatory interventions and straightforward raids on the U.S. Treasury by public representatives to wealthy private bidders--is being mis-framed as a "lobbying scandal." As a result, there's a real danger that all we're going to get is some band-aid measures called "ethics reform" meant to make it a bit harder for lobbyists to curry favor with politicians (and for politicians to hide what they do for lobbyists), without addressing what it is that makes so many politicians inclined to sell access, influence, etc. in the first place.

Leaders of both parties in Congress are now falling all over each other to propose new measures to require greater disclosure by lobbyists, to clamp down on outside groups paying for Congressional travel, to restrict or ban gifts to Members or their staffs. While it would be good to have greater disclosure from lobbyists about their contacts with Congress, this approach is hardly going to fix what ails Washington.

That's because lobbyists and the wealthy special interests they represent would have very little of the kind of power deployed by fixers like Jack Abramoff if Members of Congress weren't so desperate for the one thing they provide: Big Money to finance their campaigns. If you don't change that, even the best-intentioned Members of Congress will find themselves altering their behavior to suit the needs of Big Money. (As it is, the current proposals for "lobbying reform" all come with a gaping loophole--all a lobbyist has to do to is give a Congressman a campaign contribution at the same time that they buy them an expensive dinner or fly them to Scotland to play golf, and it's legit.)

Sure, it would be great if Members were required to disclose what "earmarks" they have inserted into bills on behalf of particular interests, and if Senators had to disclose when they place a "hold" on a bill, since these are both common practices they now use to show their value to Big Money contributors. But until we offer qualified candidates a different source of funding for their campaigns--"clean," disinterested, public money--we aren't going to see a real decrease in the Selling of Washington.

This isn't a pipe dream, by the way. We already have working systems of full public financing in states like Arizona and Maine, which has inspired reformers in Connecticut--a state that has just gone through its own local version of DeLayism--to successfully push for full public financing as the central pillar of a wide-ranging overhaul of the state's campaign and ethics laws. And the public supports the idea; when asked if they would back full public financing for candidates who abide by spending limits and agree to raise no private money, polls consistently find 60-70% support for the idea.

Right now, there are two disingenous efforts under way to cloud that basic understanding. First, Republican hacks from the President on down are trying to turn DeLayism into a bipartisan, everybody does it, problem. Abramoff was an "equal money dispenser" to both sides of the aisle, the President lied a few weeks ago. (Since he was on Faux News when he said that, no one challenged his grasp of the facts.) The centrist pundits Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann do a nice job of explaining what was so different about Republican control of Congress in today's NYTimes: the Rs, led by DeLay, used their narrow majority to run roughshod over normal deliberative procedures, turning the House especially into, yes, a plantation. What Ornstein and Mann leave out is what DeLay's plantation was producing. This was all done so the Republicans could hold up their end of their many deals with the wealthy special interests financing their campaigns, i.e., ram through a prescription drug bill that enshrines Big Pharma's exorbitant profits; a bankruptcy deform bill written by the credit card industry; a series of energy bills that dole out tens of billions in tax dollars to oil, gas and nuclear dinosaurs; exorbitant tax cuts for the rich; etcetera, etcetera.

At the same time, some more libertarian-inclined pundits like Andrew Ferguson and Glenn Reynolds are using the mis-framed "lobbying scandal" to sneer--with some justification--at reformers' efforts to write ever more stringent rules defining what is acceptable behavior in and around Congress, and to push the libertarian argument that the real source of Washington's corruption is the sheer size of government and all the special pleading that inevitably results when government claims so much power to regulate our lives. This is the position of Rep. John Shadegg, dark-horse "outsider" candidate to replace DeLay, who is backed by the anti-government fanatics at the Club for Growth.

"Congress is fixing the wrong problem," Reynolds sniffs. "It's not a coincidence that while the lobbying community roughly doubled in size, the federal government's budget grew by nearly two-thirds," Ferguson claims. (In fact, while total federal spending has grown by 33% since 1995, something Rep. Shadegg points out in an oped he wrote yesterday for the Wall Street Journal, the total number of lobbyists swarming Washington doubled since 2000; and the number of "earmarks" in bills have grown something like tenfold--could it be that the election of George W. Bush and the ascension of a brazen and unchecked class of Republican pigs like Tom DeLay had more to do with the explosion of the lobbying community?)

While I agree that there may be some unintended and perverse consequences of some of the proposed lobbying reforms (Ferguson points out that banning all outside financing of Congressional travel--which House Democrats aren't proposing, in fact--will likely produce an even more provincial group of Members than we currently have), neither Reynolds nor Ferguson are proposing any kind of serious way to get to the smaller, more rational government they seek.

Well, consider this, my libertarian-leaning pundit pals. If Members of Congress were no longer beholden to wealthy private interests to finance their campaigns, do you think they would keep voting for hundreds of billions of dollars in wasteful subsidies and boondoggles? Would they vote for tobacco subsidies at the same time that they vote for anti-smoking education programs? Would they vote for weapons systems the Pentagon says it doesn't even want while shortchanging troops on vital body armor and salaries? Would they vote to artificially prop up the price of commodities like sugar and peanuts, and to keep semi-monopolists like the cable industry and the pharmaceutical industry from dealing with lower-priced competition?

You want a smaller government that wastes less of our tax dollars? Maybe you should get behind public financing of campaigns, instead of taking lazy potshots at a Big Government that mainly does the bidding of Big Money.