The Montana Standard has a poignant editorial today that shows how the pay-to-play system in politics is now afflicting both political parties - and how there is an alternative to it all. The paper correctly notes that the bipartisan legalized bribery system in Washington, D.C. has gotten down to a scientific formula: "Work for a congressman for a few years, leave to start a private consulting firm, pick up a few large corporate clients, and have those clients donate money back to the senators’ campaigns." In other words, Washington, D.C. is one big brothel with a gilded revolving door for an entry - politicians are the prostitutes, lobbyists are the customers, and the door spins faster and faster as the two seamlessly switch places.
You have to read no further than the Lee Newspapers' recent expose on the pay-to-play system to know that this description is a fact. And it is a fact even when it comes to the policy areas that should be most off-limits to this kind of corruption. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, "lobbyists representing transportation, energy and other special interests dominated panels that advised Louisiana's U.S. senators" - Mary Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (R) - who were "crafting legislation to rebuild the storm-damaged Gulf Coast."
Democrats, not surprisingly, are trying to make the recent corruption scandals surrounding Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) and Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) into a major 2006 issue, as they should. But as the aforementioned Los Angeles Times article shows, the problem is that there are those in Democrats' own midst who are still actively playing footsie with this "culture" themselves. And they aren't just isolated cases - they pop up all the time in the most damaging ways. Just this week, for instance, Montana Sen. Max Baucus (D) got caught using a Jack-Abramoff-connected goon to help him raise money. Abramoff, you may recall, is at the center of one of the most politically dangerous scandals afflicting both Montana"s own vulnerable GOP Sen. Conrad Burns and the national Republican Party as a whole. To put it mildly, Baucus's move is not exactly helpful to Democrats working to position themselves as reformers.
This is why mere rhetoric berating a "culture of corruption" just isn't going to cut it for Democrats if they want to really make all of this an issue in 2006. It is going to take action and an actual change of behavior among Democratic poiliticians. The Montana Standard notes this very fact and points out at least one politician who is taking concrete steps to crackdown on the pay-to-play shenanigans. In contrast to Montana's congressional delegation, Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) has taken a stand by declaring "he won’t employ registered lobbyists in state government." Schweitzer is also planning to push a statewide ballot initiative to force the legislature to accept commonsense lobbying and ethics reform.
Similarly, at least some courageous Democrats in Washington, D.C. seem to get the need for action. For instance, Rep. George Miller (D) is pushing a proposal to crackdown on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, while Sen. Russ Feingold (D) has proposed a bill closing abusive lobbying loopholes.
The truth is, the public believes most politicians are corrupt - and with a few exceptions like those mentioned above and a few others, the public is right. Lobbying is an industry whose sole focus is buying off politicians - and that industry's growth into a multi-billion dollar industry is proof positive that we are living in one of the most corrupt eras in American history.
Unless the Democratic Party as a whole endorses and publicly promotes its support for concrete lobbying/ethics reforms, the public will only blame the GOP for getting caught for its corruption, not for necessarily being substantively more corrupt than their opponents. Put another way, Democrats have to give the public a reason to throw the Republicans out in 2006, and the only way to do that is to show the public how Democrats would be substantively different from the GOP in terms of cleaning up our government.