We should all be pleased that the congressional Democratic leadership is offering a slate of lobbying/ethics reforms today. They are solid steps, to be sure. But if anyone tells you they will be the key to either fixing America's broken political system or Democrats winning in 2006, tell that person to get their head examined immediately.
Here are the facts: polls show the American people see both parties as equally corrupt. In response to the Abramoff/Cunningham/DeLay scandals, both parties have offered what they bill as "reforms." It is true - the GOP's "reforms" deliberately leave open gaping loopholes, while the Democrats' do not. But that's not really important, either substantively or politically, because the truth is, you cannot fix a system if you allow it to continue as a system of legalized bribery, and you cannot take back congressional majorities if, like the Democrats, you propose solutions that are easily blurred by the majority.
Under our current political system, politicians must raise huge amounts of cash from Big Money interests in order to run for office. This is the reason why lobbyists and special interests have so much power - because they hold the keys to a politicians' political survival right in their wallets. Put another way, a lobbyist is only as powerful as the campaign cash he/she can deliver to the politician they are trying to influence. That's why, for instance, indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff was one of Bush's top fundraisers. It wasn't because he necessarily liked George Bush, or was even necessarily an ideological conservative - it was because he knew he needed to lavish huge piles of campaign cash on the White House in order to get the access he would need to do his job as a corporate shill.
Thus, as I wrote earlier in the San Francisco Chronicle, unless we actually address how elections are financed so that politicians don't have to rely on corporate cash to run their campaigns, none of the nibble-around-the-edges lobbying/ethics reforms will really fix the system. Unless we create a system of publicly financed elections like Arizona, Connecticut and various municipalities have created, we will be treating a deadly cancer with a pain medication. Sure, aesthetic lobbying/ethics reform might make some feel better, but the real disease will still be ravaging our political system.
Make no mistake about it - politicians in both parties understand this reality - they understand that the only way to really change the system is to create a publicly-financed system that gives political candidates a way to fund their runs for office that doesn't rely on Big Money interests. It is, after all, elementary.
But politicians in both parties in Congress have clearly made a conscious decision not to support public financing of elections, because many of the politicians - both Democrats and Republicans - have created their power base leveraging the current pay-to-play system. That much is obvious, of course, among Republicans. All you have to look at are recent stories about DeLay and his potential successors to see why they would despise a system of publicly financed elections.
But you can also see how many other top Democrats might see publicly financed elections as a threat to their power. For example, just look at House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) - a guy who brags on his official website about creating his own "K Street Project" to shakedown corporate lobbyists for campaign cash. That has undoubtedly helped him rise in the House leadership. Or look at Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) - a guy who runs for reelection using huge amounts of corporate campaign cash, has refused to push public financing of elections and instead is supporting the GOP's lobbying/ethics bill - even though he represents the state that recently passed a public financing system of elections. Or how about Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) - the guy who is running around saying "reform, reform, reform" even as his own campaign committee is headed by a corporate lobbyist who has lobbied him on critical issues. And the list goes on. The only thing that a sane person can conclude is that these people, for all of their talk, simply do not want real change - they merely want to deceive the public into thinking they want real change.
Meanwhile, the media hasn't even thought to ask these politicians why they don't support public financing of elections. The deafening silence is quite literally a conspiracy of the political Establishment to protect itself. Because to claim that everyone is focused on "reform" but to not ever address the fundamental problem plaguing the system - money buying elections - is to deliberately try to mislead the public in order to protect the powers that be.
So, in this week where every smarmy politician is stampeding to a podium trying to pretend they are for real reform, I have some very simple questions:
How is it possible that the deafening silence on public financing of elections is allowed to continue?
How is it possible that no reporters have asked about this, the real intersection of money and politics?
How have the Democrats not embraced public financing - a position that the GOP will never embrace and thus a position that would create a real contrasting message for 2006?
How could Democrats possibly think that a debate between the technicalities of their lobbying/reform bill and the GOP's lobbying/reform bill will actually be easily communicable for a national election campaign?
Could it be possible that Democrats are so comfortable in the minority that they are simply unwilling to give up the perks of our current money-drenched system, even if giving up those perks might mean they could create a message that lets them retake the majority?
These are the questions everyone should be asking. The public isn't stupid, no matter how many politicians strut around thinking we are. And until we get answers to these very simple questions, no one should fool themselves into believing the public is going to suddenly see one party or the other as the real party of reform.