05/18/2013 09:21 am ET Updated Jul 18, 2013

Secrets Revealed: Corruption, Money and Power In Washington

Money in politics corruption is universally reviled by the American public. It blocks progress on most issues, squanders billions of dollars from philanthropists and stymies the most skillful public interest advocates. It even drives issues like the sizzling IRS scandal, though you wouldn't know it by watching the news.

Steven Rattner points out in New York Times, "One of the bigger ironies about the I.R.S. imbroglio is that it had nothing to do with taxes. These newly formed entities didn't seek 501(c)(4) status to avoid taxes....The important benefit that came from achieving 501(c)(4) status was freedom from having to disclose the names of any of their donors." Rattner goes on to point out that the real story is less about mid-level IRS bureaucrats making bad decisions, and more about the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United decision that created the massive increase in tax exempt applications. His piece concludes, "So let's, by all means, find the wrongdoers at the I.R.S. and punish them. But the biggest take-away from the I.R.S. mess should be that our campaign-finance system is in desperate need of overhaul."

So how do we do that? First we must understand that the real crisis is not about what's illegal. It's about what is perfectly legal: secret, unlimited money skewing political outcomes, and billions in contributions from lobbyists in exchange for policy favors. If it were only a matter of uncovering specific instances where cash is traded for legislative favors and ejecting corrupt politicians, reform would have succeeded long ago.

"(Legal) contributions from lobbyists and special interests to public servants are bribes," declared disgraced super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. It is this legalized system of bribery that must be fixed, but in order to do so, we must also understand how power actually works in Washington. We must understand the real problem that is baked into the culture of the entire political class that runs American government: a culture of common understanding that identifies organized money as the most important form of power in politics. It infects newcomers rapidly and either converts them or spits them back to where they came from. It is the container in which U.S. politics operates.

At the beginning of every significant policy debate in Congress, the first set of questions is not about the right answer. It is about which moneyed forces will take what positions and how that will impact the effort to achieve a particular outcome. From this analysis, the parameters of "what is possible" are set. Then you can talk about the right answer, the legislative change you seek, and the arguments that are considered plausible and politically viable.

This set of assumptions is shared by Democrats and Republicans alike--by both the honest and the unscrupulous. And this framework of ideals and assumptions is powerfully reinforced by the mainstream political media--mainly because they largely repeat what Washington says and fill their news-holes with interviews with Washington elites.

The assumption that organized money is paramount goes well beyond natural ideological inclinations, or allegiance to the economic views of a particular state or district. There is a difference between ideological economic conservatism and an acceptance that money's influence on the political process is more important than all other influences.

So why is this? Two primary factors--one is procedural and the other social. The procedural reason is that the Congress is designed to frustrate any legislative effort that does not enjoy super-majority support--a condition made worse by exploitation of the Senate filibuster. It is easy to kill bills in Washington, and lobbies can influence both natural ideological allies as well as those who see strategic advantage in opposing almost anything. That is not a conspiracy. It is a fact. It is not new, and it could be overcome with organized public pressure if it were the only problem.

The much bigger problem is social. Though there are 535 members of Congress and thousands of "senior officials" across the executive branch (plus all of the staff that attend these decision-makers) the truth is that a much smaller number of people control the real levers of power in Washington. They set the agenda. They determine the realm of the possible for everyone else to work within.

Most of these committee chairs, party leaders, and veterans of previous administrations and political campaigns have been in Washington a long time and in politics much longer. They rotate out of elected office into lobby shops and law firms. They move in and out of political campaigns. They rotate through corporate executive suites to the White House and offices of Cabinet secretaries. They live in the same neighborhoods. Their kids play baseball together. They hang out at the same restaurants.

In short--they are just people doing what people do--forming social groups. They have common values, shared understandings of society and politics, and a narrative about life in American politics that binds them all together. Even when they strongly disagree on ideological grounds, they don't disagree about their shared assumptions that money is the most important form of political power and determinative of political outcomes in most cases. And unlike other groups of people that form these kinds of social groups, these folks happen to hold enormous power.

That worldview trickles down on their staff, shapes the behavior of colleagues, and ultimately binds everyone within the system to the same basic assumptions about what is politically possible. This is not evil or corruption. It is normative. It is common sense. It is the way it has always been. Once you have been in this culture for a while, you become desensitized to things that neutral observers might call corruption--campaign contribution breakfasts hosted by rings of lobbyists, special favors for your old friends who happen to be lobbyists, and accepting and repeating the arguments you hear regularly in your social circles--even though they are filled with lobbyists that carry the water for special interests.

This milieu is what nearly everyone in Washington takes for granted--from the 25-year old junior congressional staffer to the 85-year old Senator. And the longer you are there, the more normal it seems. Through natural tendencies of human psychology, the more often people see a particular set of assumptions or views confirmed in practice, the more they believe that is what they thought all along. Over time, you become distanced from what you thought before, if indeed you brought different ideals to politics in the first place.

Are Americans getting what they asked for with the current Congress? Consider the dysfunction. Congress cannot solve problems--even urgent ones. The polls are replete with examples of issues wherein Americans agree on something in super-majorities but the Congress cannot get it done because it challenges something sacrosanct for big money interests (either through regulation or taxes). Banking reform is a prime example. Climate change is another. Tax reform. Gun control. Better early-childhood education. Infrastructure improvements. Better/cheaper health care. All of these issues unite majorities and yet most are considered outside the realm of the possible in Washington.

Party leaders on both sides present their positions to the public in ways that seek to blame the other guys and distort opposition to reform into a slogan that appeals to some other value...but this isn't democracy--this is just bait and switch. And the fundamental problems all lead back to the culture of how politics works.

If you begin to undo that culture, you realign assumptions and open new opportunities for politicians to act differently. How do you do that? The only way is through an aggressive political campaign that points out how bad things have become, presents a viable way to fix it, and punishes opponents at the ballot box, where it matters. This will resonate--because the American public senses that money runs politics, even if they can't put their fingers on how. That gut feeling is real. But a political call to arms is not enough. And neither is an effort to regulate one element of campaign finance. You can't change the warped culture of governance built over generations by merely limiting PAC contributions or forcing transparency. You have to disassemble each and every one of the things that contribute to making the assumptions about the primacy of money in the political power normative.

Implementing the elements of the American Anti-Corruption Act--the legislative proposal my organization advocates to overhaul campaign finance, lobbying and transparency--is a first step. Get those things done, and you have a chance that the next generation of politicians and government decision-makers will think differently and operate in a different culture of what is possible, normal, and conventional.

It would be foolish to believe that a culture of corruption that developed over decades can be undone overnight. It will take time, exactly the same kind of slow and painful social change that created the corruption in the first place. We have to create the conditions where politicians representing their constituents is "normal". And even if we do, all politicians will not suddenly become enlightened. It just means we'll have a better chance that the actual needs of society will more frequently be met by the actions of its government.

If we succeed in finally mounting a viable political strategy to fix this vexing issue, the republic may yet be saved. But if we fail, it's difficult to envision a viable future for our democracy, our nation, and our planet. So try we must.