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Godzilla in the Room

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In response to this political era's Watergate scandal, the Abramoff-DeLay, who's-next debacle, members of Congress are rolling out reform proposals even faster than new stories of misdeeds, unethical behavior, and rumored indictments are radiating out through the blogosphere. There's only one problem: none of the measures proposed to date are addressing the real story of money corruption in Washington DC, the hundreds of millions of dollars given to politicians each election cycle, and the policy favors that donors extract in return.

Ban a free lunch? You bet, do it, say elected officials of both parties. Cancel those reservations to Scotland? That too, say our lawmakers. But take the big-interest money out of our campaign coffers? ...(silence). It's not the elephant in the room in Washington DC, or the donkey, either. Big money's the 900-ton Godzilla.

Consider this. Senator Rick Santorum, the Senate's self-proclaimed "liaison to K Street" and Majority Leader Bill Frist's point person for crafting the GOP lobbying reform agenda, leads all senators in contributions from lobbyists in the current political cycle. Since 2001, he's received $182,470 from lobbyists. But that's just slightly less than the two percent of the $11.5 million total in campaign cash he collected during that same period. In contrast to his lobbyist totals, Santorum's taken $1.3 million from finance, insurance, and real estate companies -- the kind of high-powered corporate interests that hire the elite "K street" lobbyists. During the 2004 election cycle, Congress as a whole took in $26.9 million from lobbyists, a figure dwarfed by the $1.5 billion contributed by business interests overall. Dealing with this massive political investment will take more than new restrictions on lobbyists. Indeed, it will require an end to the private financing monopoly that Congress has established as the only way candidates can run for the U.S. House or Senate.

Under the present system it's the small fraction of Americans (1/10 of 1%) that can make a contribution of $2,000 or more who are treasured by candidates. Not only do the $10 and $25 contributed by Jane and Joe Sixpack mean little, but the $100 or $250 donation of Tiffany and Max Latte-Grande are small change as well. It is no wonder their concerns are secondary when it comes to dealing with high gas and home heating oil prices, designing fair tax policies, or keeping our air and water safe to breathe and drink.

Creating a publicly financed alternative to the present private donation-only system would make for real change. In Maine, Arizona, an additional five other states, and two cities, candidates can opt to run under a "Clean Elections" system. They raise a large number of small contributions from constituents to qualify for a lump sum of public funds sufficient to run a competitive, modern-day campaign. Of course, there's a condition: they can no longer accept private contributions and must obey a spending limit. Qualifying candidates competing for the same office receive the same amount of money. This levels the incumbent-versus-challenger playing field and encourages good civic leaders to run for office -- even if they can't raise a dime from Jack Abramoff and his ilk, or the clients that hire them.

Provide money to challengers? Release lawmakers from the grip of big-money interests? Bring new candidates into elections? Invite the voters back into politics? It's possible, but it won't happen if Congress aims only at reform lite. To enact real change, Congress must start talking about the Godzilla in the room. Representatives John Tierney and Raul Grijalva have long sponsored a Clean Elections bill for Congress and there is talk of additional similar proposals surfacing soon. But for these measures to be taken seriously, outside-the-Beltway America must force the conversation. Make your voice heard.