Saturday, January 6, 2007

Democrats, Corruption & the Difference Between Two Washingtons

The difference between what happened late this week in Washington, D.C. and what happened at the very same time in Washington State is a good example of how people in our nation’s capital are still very much oblivious to what the rest of society thinks is acceptable behavior.

Here’s what happened in Washington, D.C., according to NBC News:

“Hours after changing House rules to reduce favors from lobbyists, it was back to business as usual in Washington…Democrats threw a $1,000-a-person fundraising concert in Washington Thursday night, with Hollywood celebrities, big donors and those lobbyists writing checks to re-elect Democrats…Neither party is doing anything to crack down on campaign money lobbyists give and raise. In fact, under the new rules, lobbyists can still wine and dine members of Congress as long as it’s a campaign fundraiser…Speaker Pelosi’s spokesperson says there were only about 200 lobbyists at Thursday night’s fundraising concert.” (emphasis added)

Ah yes, folks, we should all supposedly sleep easier because ONLY 200 lobbyists came to shower Democrats in cash a few hours after Democrats were in front of the cameras decrying the culture of corruption. Whew, I know I’m relieved.

By contrast, here is Evergreen Politics’ report about what happened in Seattle at a packed forum on a cold and rainy Friday night:

“A panel of legislators were on hand for a Town Hall forum last night (sponsored by Washington Public Campaigns) to promote the idea of public financing of elections for Washington State. Maine State Representative Linda Valentino and Arizona State Senator Ed Ableser made their case: It currently costs less than $3.00 per person per year to set up a fund (it could go into a general fund or a dedicated fund) that contributes enough money to run a primary and a general election campaign…The best result of the clean campaign method is that its winners no longer feel beholden to special interests, have no qualms about kicking lobbyists out of their offices, and can then go sponsor and pass the legislation they really believe is best for their constituencies…Four of our Washington State reps were also on the panel. They all spoke of the temptations of special interest money, and how hard it is to resist. Rep. Mark Miloscia (30th leg. district) admitted, ‘I feel my integrity is tested everyday.’ The first challenge to the status quo will come next week when Representative Shay Schual-Berke (33rd leg. district) sponsors legislation calling for public financing of all Supreme Court and Appellate Court judicial races.”

As I sit here in a hotel room reading the MSNBC report after being at this terrific event here in Seattle, I am simultaneously embarrassed and proud to have worked in Democratic politics. I am embarrassed that, at a time state legislators are putting their political capital on the line to truly clean up politics, many (though not all) of their counterparts in Congress clearly think “reform” is the punchline of a joke. Public Campaign’s David Donnelly says, “It sends a very mixed message to be on one hand saying that they’re clamping down on lobbyists, but then raising money from those very same lobbyists that they say are part of the problem.” I’d say that’s putting it mildly - it’s really making a mockery out of our party’s name by insulting the public’s intelligence and so openly trying to pull a fast one on the American people.

But I am also proud. I met legislators tonight who have guts - real guts - to indict a system they themselves have come up through, and that they are now willing to admit is inherently corrupt. Make no mistake - these are not big-time congresspeople with the huge staffs of yes people and K Street entourages that now insulate our federal representatives from their own constituents, and make sure there is a reelection support system no matter how often they sell out. No, these are actual citizen legislators - people who live out here in the Real World, who can’t bring themselves to lie with a smile about reform like so many folks in D.C. It will be up to the people of Washington State to help these legislators push public financing of elections by creating the grassroots political energy necessary to enact such power-challenging reforms - but after such an energetic showing tonight (and subsequent forums in cities across the state), I’m hopeful public financing is going to happen here, if not this year, then soon in the future.

Unfortunately, I’m not as optimistic about the Beltway. Everyone in Washington, D.C. knows that the only way to clean up politics is to publicly finance elections. Everyone on Capitol Hill, for instance, read the Roll Call story about how lobbyists already know how to get around the Democrats 100 hours “reforms” and that, as one lobbyist put it, he is “going to be embraced and hugged and kissed [by lawmakers] as long as I’m giving them a check’ for their campaign.” And yet, other than a handful of courageous Democrats who have previously proposed real reform, no one is saying anything about cracking down on the intersection of money and politics.

As states like Washington and New York potentially join places like Maine, Arizona and Connecticut in embracing clean elections, the Progressive States Network will be right there to support these efforts and work with other groups like Public Campaign and Common Cause to make reform a reality. I hope this activity helps pressure Beltway Democrats into pushing public financing, as many of us have prescribed ad nauseum - and I am hearing rumors that at some point this year, we will see some action on Capitol Hill. I sure hope that’s true, but I fear that if it does not come soon, the Democrats’ Money Party faction will be able to deflate its support by claiming that the 100 hours “reforms” already solved the problem, and that public financing is supposedly not “politically realistic” in Congress - even though it has already passed in a Republican state like Arizona and has potential GOP supporters on Capitol Hill.

This is one of the defining issues of our time - it affects every single issue before Congress, from economic policy to foreign policy. Polls show the public is ready for clean elections - as I’ve asked before: are we as a progressive movement ready to put real reform front and center? Or are we going to settle for Partisan War Syndrome, where we merely cheer on symbolic measures that are being used as a trick by our partisan allies in order to prevent real reform? And maybe worst of all, are we going to rationalize our own inaction by claiming that Internet fundraising somehow negates Big Money, even as Big Money continues to outspend us and buy legislation?

The answer will decide whether these burgeoning state efforts become reality, and whether Congress will overcome its bipartisan inertia and end D.C.’s sick culture of corruption for real.

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