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Steve Hildebrand Headshot

We Can't Blow This

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Note: While I'm consulting to the nonpartisan reform groups Public Campaign Action Fund and Common Cause to advance comprehensive campaign finance reform, these words are my own.

Let's remind ourselves that we're in charge of the train wreck that has stalled the important work of Congress. With large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, voters clearly understand that we're driving the train.

On November 6, 2006, when voters gave the House to the Democrats, Nancy Pelosi said, "The American people voted to restore integrity and honesty in Washington, D.C., and the Democrats intend to lead the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history."

With a trio of scandals making news in the last two weeks (Charlie Rangel, Eric Massa, and the PMA lobbying earmarks), I predict we will see a lot of these words in the coming months. We are either going to hear them repeated by the likes of John Boehner and Eric Cantor as political attacks, or we're going to hear them from the mouth's of pundits, TV news anchors, and journalists describing a promise kept by Speaker Pelosi -- but only if she can shepherd the boldest campaign finance reform forward in American history.

But it's not simply an issue for the Speaker. Will the Democratic majority help her keep that promise?

Sadly, we've made little progress on anything that voters want. We've failed to bridge the deep divide that exists between the two parties. Republicans certainly share in the blame as they carelessly obstruct everything presented by the Democrats.

Will Republicans get their dream narrative to use against us this fall? Or will we get our act together and preserve the Democratic majorities?

Corruption and ethics scandals still lead the daily headlines. Allegations about Rangel, Massa and others have caused unnecessary distractions and underscore a promise not kept (so far). At the same time, our Democratic majorities have done little to change the public's perception of "the culture of corruption." The new agency they created to investigate unethical conduct has been sidelined. Ethics investigations have led to finding that executives and lobbyists knew precisely why they were giving campaign contributions -- and somehow we're to believe that the expectation of quid pro quo was never understood by members of Congress?

A few years after Tom DeLay's Congress, we still have an institution that appears to prefer to protect it's own rather than improve the enforcement of bad behavior.

Additionally, while holding the majority, Democrats have failed to reduce the enormous power of special interests and the millions used to peddle influence. The political money chase gets worse ever year. Politicians from both parties fly from Wall Street to Hollywood and points in-between begging for campaign cash. They spend countless hours every day courting lobbyists, corporate heads and PAC directors to build their re-election war chests. Even incumbents with no threat of losing re-election crisscross the country begging for cash.

No politician in Washington could credibly deny that the place is broken. While we have champions like Congressman John Larson and Senator Dick Durbin leading efforts to pass the Fair Elections Now Act, our House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader have not made this a top priority. With 137 House Democrats and 3 Republicans co-sponsoring the only real measure to curb the influence of big money in politics, it appears uncertain that a vote on this important reform bill will take place.

Voters are angry about the train wreck. They have long demanded reform and we have failed them. They don't see Washington as a collection of "bad apples" -- they think the barrel is rotten. We promised to do better. So if we don't fix this broken system now and make fixing Washington the centerpiece of the 2010 election, Republicans will use our 2006 "culture of corruption" playbook against us and the Democratic majorities we worked so hard to secure will be in jeopardy. Even as our opponents conduct the greatest obstruction of Congress in history, it will be Democrats who voters punish because we are in charge.

Elections are won largely based on which party has the best narrative. We still have time to develop the better one before the November elections. But will we?

Let's keep our commitments by cleaning up the mess, passing sweeping ethics and political reforms and getting things done. We can't blow this.