09/09/2006 05:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Open Letter to Nancy Pelosi About Election 2006

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C.

Dear Minority Leader Pelosi:

I am very much hoping to refer to you as Speaker Pelosi in 2007, but it has come to the public's attention that there are people within the Democratic Party's ranks in Washington who are working overtime to prevent that from happening.

As you know, many of the professional hangers-on in the Democratic Party inside the Beltway have been integral cogs in a machine that has made an art form out of losing winnable elections. From my time spent working on Capitol Hill for Democrats on the Appropriations Committee (on which you served), I learned a lesson that you probably know: that there are very powerful forces inside the Democratic Party who literally do not care whether the Democrats win elections - and if they do care even a little bit, it's only because they believe victories will let them rake more cash into their own pockets.

Case in point is this week's Roll Call story where we see, at a time you are courageously trying to indict the Republicans for their "culture of corruption," many industry lobbyists who pledge their loyalty to Democrats are now aggressively seeking out journalists to brag about how they are drenching the Democratic Party in corporate campaign cash. Worse, some of your Democratic colleagues are publicly bragging about the effort, apparently absolutely unaware - or directly contemptuous - of the "culture of corruption" case you are making against the Republicans in the 2006 election cycle. Here are a few excerpts from that Roll Call story, in case you had not seen it:

"Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee, on Wednesday huddled at the Washington Court Hotel with about 35 lobbyists who make up his informal kitchen cabinet...On Sept. 13, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is hosting a lunch to raise PAC contributions...Efforts to gather campaign cash from former Hill staffers working downtown have gotten another boost this cycle from an informal effort led by Hoyer and by Democratic Reps. John Tanner (Tenn.), Ellen Tauscher (Calif.) and Joe Crowley (N.Y.). That program had collected $100,000 by mid-summer, with nearly 60 percent of the money coming from personal checks, according to a source familiar with the effort...House Democrats are finding many loyal soldiers among the ranks of K Street lobbyists...Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf said that the buzz about Democrats retaking the House is enough to prompt lobbyists to keep cutting checks and leaning on clients to follow suit. 'I called the DCCC today and asked them to send me a list of their events,' he said, describing a move that turns on its head the normal fundraising dynamic. 'I already give, but I've got clients.'"

Of course, as you know, this story is not new - it follows similar stories, such as the one where your colleague Steny Hoyer (who is aggressively working to undermine you on many issues) bragged to reporters about setting up his own version of Tom DeLay's "K Street Project" to shakedown lobbyists for cash. He did this, even as you were courageously working with your colleague, Rep. George Miller (D), to crack down on the influence of lobbyists generally, and on the Democratic Party in specific. And Hoyer is not alone - the influence of Big Money has very publicly bled not only into parts of the congressional Democratic Caucus, but even into the powerful cadre of high-profile Democratic political consultants in Washington who keep getting hired to run races despite their atrocious record of losing elections.

Obviously, I want Democrats to have the resources to wage a forceful campaign. But all of this begs two very important questions that I would like to bring to your attention.

The first set of questions is about the intellectually impaired nature of some in the Democratic Party in Washington. How absolutely stupid, shortsighted and blinded by dollar signs do these people have to be to sit in Washington as corporate lobbyists, say they care about Democrats winning elections, and then run to reporters trying to land stories about how they are working as hard as you can to buy off the party in advance of the election? How comfortable in the minority do some of your congressional colleagues have to be to assist in the reporting of these stories? Even if you accept the premise for a moment that at a purely political level, Democrats need to accept as much money as possible from anyone in order to wage a well-funded campaign - does that really explain why lobbyists and Democratic lawmakers are running to brag about their shakedown efforts in public and thus giving the GOP a perfect weapon to bludgeon Democrats with the charge of hypocrisy? I believe that if you want to know why Democrats have lost so many elections recently, you'll find the answer in the truthful responses to these questions.

The second set of questions is about what all of this means. I ask you with your committed progressive record that I have repeatedly applauded you for - do you really expect voters to believe that there's automatically going to be real change if Democrats win Congress? Can we really expect the public to read stories about Hill-staffers-turned-corporate-lobbyists circling Democrats like hungry sharks and think the public is so stupid as to not liken such behavior to the exact kind of corruption we are saying Democrats will end? Especially with so many senior Democratic lawmakers seeming to cheer all this on, the answer is clearly no - and I believe that endangers our cause in 2006 because it fundamentally undermines our claim to represent real change.

Again, this isn't to say that I don't want Democrats to win - as in past elections, I'm working as hard as I can for a Democratic majority because, as I have written recently, a Democratic Congress has a better chance of creating real change - even in spite of K Street's efforts. The fact is, there are top Democrats all over the country who are serious about reform, and a Democratic Congress will help their efforts, both in Congress and in our states. But for every lawmaker like you or George Miller who have tried to push corporate lobbyists to the side, for every Brian Schweitzer (D-MT) spearheading a ballot initiative to lessen the influence of lobbyists or Phil Angelides (D-CA) pushing a ballot initiative to publicly finance campaigns - there are other senior Democrats who have made clear where their allegiances are.

I've stopped hoping and praying that Democratic-affiliated lobbyists in Washington will shut their mouths on their own. I realized long ago that was a pipe dream, because these people are not in the business of change - they are in the business of promoting themselves in the media as "connected" so they then get more corporate clients and thus pocket more corporate cash to buy even bigger houses in Bethesda and Georgetown and buy even sportier cars to drive to their vacation home on the Eastern Shore. Many of these people do not care at all if you become Speaker. And those that do support that goal do so primarily because they believe it will mean more clients for themselves.

But I do still hope and pray that a Democratic leader like you will put your foot down - if only in pursuit of winning this November. I strongly suggest you author a directive to the entire K Street community saying that any lobbyist who gets quoted in a paper talking about how they are working overtime to shower Democrats in corporate cash will lose all their access to the Democratic Party. In a similar directive to the House lawmakers you lead, you should let your colleagues know that their committee assignments and other perks of office will be in jeopardy should they aid K Street lobbyists in their efforts to bribe the Democratic Party and brag about it publicly.

In doing this, you will be saying to the professional influence peddlers that have destroyed our democratic process that if they keep putting their own self-promotion over the cause of the party, they will be out of business entirely under a Democratic Congress. You told Time Magazine recently, "Anybody who's ever dealt with me knows not to mess with me". In taking this course of action against K Street, you would be backing up that declaration with action.

Every December after Democrats have lost Congress over the last 12 years, corporate-funded front groups like the Democratic Leadership Committee inevitably claim it is because Democrats were supposedly too populist. But after loss after loss after loss, I believe you can see all of that is a justification for our party to continue undermining itself by being partially complicit in the culture of corruption that the GOP has made into an art form.

The fact is, elections are decided in many ways on character and principle - not on specific issues. Voters respect political leaders who take strong stands against what are rightly perceived to be powerful interests - and they hate political leaders who put their thumbs in the wind, desperately try to avoid angering corrupt forces, and talk out of both sides of their mouth. You taking a truly strong stand against the culture of corruption as suggested here would send a strong message that the rhetoric Democrats are running on is backed up by conviction.


David Sirota
Former spokesman, U.S. House Appropriations Committee Democrats
Author, Hostile Takeover