THE BLOG
06/01/2010 07:02 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Following "Da Money" Trail in Congress

Senator Dick Durbin, Majority Whip in the Senate, recently quipped, "They own the place." His disgust was palpable. Corporate America and its lobbyists continue to hold sway over Congress, and the results are obvious: partisan gridlock and watered-down bills that amount to little more than sell-outs to whatever industries they would impact. Congress is being bribed every day -- legally, according to their neutered "ethics" rules -- to do the bidding of big business.

A shameless lot, these corporatists; some facts that turn the stomach:

1. The financial industry alone has pumped in $1 million per member of Congress to control the debate on financial reform.

2. The health care lobby spent roughly $125 million lobbying against healthcare reform.

3. There are 11,140 registered lobbyists plying their trade in DC.

4. In the first quarter 2010 alone, nearly $1billion was spent on lobbying by corporations, trade associations, unions and other organizations.

Many of those over 11,000 lobbyists are former aides of current Representatives and Senators, who now scurry through the halls of Congress with unlimited access to members and intimate knowledge of all the ways to game the legislative system for their new corporate masters. If we truly want a return to representative government -- representative of the American people, that is -- then two basic rules of lobbying reform must be enacted:

1. No former staff member of a Representative or Senator may be allowed to re-enter that revolving door as a lobbyist for a minimum of 5 to 7 years; and

2. They cannot be allowed to lobby for any industry regulated by a committee on which their former bosses currently serve.

We can already see the effects of these insider lobbyists in the failure of the Banking Committee to enact any meaningful overhaul of the financial industry. And I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for the Administration -- with its cadre of former banking and financial executives minding the coop -- to demand anything better. Nothing short of a full repeal of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 ; for which we can thank, once again, the cowardly lion Bill Clinton) and a reinstatement of at least the regulatory elements of the Glass-Steagall Act (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass-Steagall_Act) are needed if we are to escape the twin booby-traps of banks "too big to fail" and taxpayer-funded bailouts. Otherwise, the shady parts of the "financial services" industry will continue to make scads of money with their rigged roulette wheel of derivatives, hedge funds and other scams too complex to be comprehended by most of us -- including our "leaders" in DC. Of course, it's hard for those "leaders" to be too inquisitive when they themselves are profiting from the very corrupt system they are supposed to fix!

In a different world, retiring Senator Chris Dodd might have found sufficient backbone during his last days in office to enact a strong regulatory overhaul on this industry and its practices. But once again, it appears "da money" reared its ugly head. Following the Senate's passing their wimpy financial "reform" bill last week, the Center for Responsive Politics compared the Senators' votes with their campaign funding. The results? Senators who opposed the legislation received 16% more money from the financial industry than Senators who supported it. In the House version, the results were even more egregious: Representatives who voted "No" received 70% more in contributions from commercial banks than those who voted "Yes."

Dodd's Banking Committee is responsible for overseeing more than two-dozen industries, mainly in the nation's financial markets and insurance. When you see how much money flows from PAC's and individuals in those industries to the campaign coffers of members of this Committee, it is clear why an assignment there is so highly prized. From PAC's representing finance, insurance and real estate alone, contributions reached $9,031,702 this cycle, with an additional $21,812.497 from individuals. Does anyone in DC understand the meaning of "conflict of interest?"

And then we have the DNC, DCCC and DSCC, as well as the Democratic Party itself. Based on FEC data released on May 24th, the DNC has raised $124,545,249 so far in the 2010 cycle; the DCCC -- $79,586,395; and the DSCC, $58,738,440. The Democratic Party has raised $525,387,321. Where does all this money go? To keep incumbents in their jobs, of course! Even with all that money, the DCCC is still only planning to support 30-39 candidates this cycle. The DCCC must come clean on how and why it spends its funds and what percentage of those funds is coming from the public versus the PAC's. Again, you can check out www.opensecrets.org/ to get an idea.

The money merry-go-round never stops. From the time they enter Congress, members are endlessly making fundraising calls and attending pricey events with big donors to add to their coffers -- time they should be spending serving their constituents. You can see it in their countless solicitation mailings, with even more coming from the Party. A particularly galling tactic is to demand money so they can "continue their work" on one or more of the critical issues facing America and nagging at our very souls, almost as if to say, "Hey! You care about this issue, you'd better give us money if you want us to care about it, too!"

Last week I was so annoyed by yet another of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's campaign's solicitations that I returned the e-mail with a message -- "Enough is enough already with da money! Isn't $7 million enough in her coffers?" At least that got a response from a staff member.

And while individual members of Congress are working their constituents over for money and the Party organizations are collecting vast sums from God-knows-whom, our Prez is hosting fundraisers at such elegant digs as the St. Regis Hotel in New York City, where he recently hobnobbed with 185 Wall Streeters who ponied up $25,000-$50,000 a piece to attend an exquisite dinner prepared by four internationally reknowned chefs. He was joined by Nancy Pelosi and 23 Democratic members of Congress. Just weeks before, our President was lambasting these same Wall Streeters for their unconscionable, amoral greed, but I suppose on this night it was OK to accept some of those ill-gotten gains as political contributions. What next, a "power cruise" in the Gulf of Mexico with executives from BP?

This exercise in shameless hypocrisy was a fundraiser for the DCCC and yet another compelling reason for the passage of the Fair Elections Now Act.

Also check out http://www.votesmart.org/ for more information on these issues.

Additional content by Jon Stone.