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In DC, the System is the Scandal - But There's Hope from the States

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With the news of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleading guilty to charges of fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion, officials in Washington are running scared. No wonder: in copping the plea, Abramoff has agreed to cooperate with the feds on a far-reaching investigation that could touch as many as 60 lawmakers and aides, according to some news reports. The exposure of our elected officials trading political favors for campaign cash won't be a pretty sight. But as the web of Abramoff's influence is revealed, we are virtually guaranteed that many lawmakers will try to ignore the broader scandal: our pay-to-play political system which is at the heart of the Abramoff convictions.

Abramoff is a confirmed crook. He took massive kickbacks, created sham charities, and directed millions in campaign contributions while lavishing trips and meals and gifts on Washington lawmakers with the expectation of legislative paybacks and favors. But what Abramoff did in his relations with politicians is no different than what thousands of Washington lobbyists do all the time, except perhaps in the magnitude of his reach.

Politicians need money to run their campaigns, and that money has to come from somewhere. So it comes from the big moneyed special interests and well-heeled donors who have the cash and who want something back for their support. Sometimes it's a small change in the tax code that benefits a particular company or industry; sometimes it's support for an industry-friendly deregulation bill; sometimes it's opposition to a major social reform, such as expanding health care coverage to the millions of Americans who need it. It's always about access to the powerful, something those of us without big money rarely get.

Politicians are reluctant to acknowledge this "legal" scandal because the crooked system we have today is the one that got them elected in the first place. Thus they aren't saying much about fixing it. As a result, there's a danger that the Abramoff scandals will make voters even more disenchanted than they already are, feeling like the scandals simply reveal "business as usual" and that nothing will ever change.

Rather than feeding this cycle of cynicism, our elected officials should look to the states, those "laboratories of reform." Consider the bold step that Connecticut's Democratic legislature and Republican governor recently took to enact comprehensive campaign finance reform. Last month, they approved a system of publicly financed elections for all legislative and statewide offices. This makes Connecticut the first state in the nation where the legislature and governor have approved full public financing for their own races.

There was a scandal, too, in Connecticut. Former Governor John Rowland became infamous for his acceptance of gifts from donors such as hot tubs and home remodeling. He is now doing time in federal prison, along with two big city mayors, the state treasurer, and a state senator who is awaiting sentencing on bribery charges and other ethics violations. When his former lieutenant governor, now Gov. Jodi Rell, took office, she made a point of distancing herself from these shenanigans in a positive way, by demanding reform. Democrats in the legislature also pushed for campaign reform.

Connecticut isn't the only place where the link between public officials and private campaign contributions has been broken. Both Arizona and Maine offer full public financing of statewide and legislative races. New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Vermont have Clean Money systems for some races, and the municipalities of Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico recently approved full public financing for citywide races, the first via a vote in City Council, the second by citizen initiative.

In these places, candidates for public office -executive, legislative and in some cases judicial- have the option of running on a limited and equal grant of full public funding, provided they take little or no private contributions. To qualify they have to raise a large number of small contributions from voters in their district. The system allows candidates to run competitive campaigns for office even if they do not have ties to well-heeled donors or big money lobbyists, a near impossibility in today's privately funded congressional elections.

Historically, many major reforms follow scandals. Our nation's basic campaign finance disclosure and limit laws followed Watergate; the recent banning of soft money was fueled partly by the political ramifications of the implosion of Enron. But reform is not automatic; it takes grassroots pressure and courageous leadership from lawmakers. As the Abramoff scandals unfold, we need our lawmakers to take a deep breath, step up and give power back to where it belongs, with the voters who elected them.