Back in 1954, when I was a summer employee on Capitol Hill, I made my first visit to the Lincoln Memorial. I have returned many times since, most recently while I was in Washington filming for a documentary about how Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, among others, turned the conservative revolution into a racket—the biggest political scandal since Watergate.
If democracy can be said to have temples, the Lincoln Memorial is our most sacred. You stand there silently contemplating the words that gave voice to Lincoln's fierce determination to save the union—his resolve that "government of, by, and for the people shall not perish from the earth." On this latest visit, I was overcome by a sense of melancholy. Lincoln looks out now on a city where those words are daily mocked. This is no longer his city. And those people from all walks of life making their way up the steps to pay their respect to the martyred president—it's not their city, either. Or their government. This is an occupied city, a company town, and government is a subservient subsidiary of richly endowed patrons.
Once upon a time the House of Representatives was known as "the people's house." No more. It belongs to K Street now. That's the address of the lobbyists who swarm all over Capitol Hill. There are 65 lobbyists for every member of Congress. They spend $200 million per month wining, dining and seducing federal officials. Per month!
Of course they're just doing their job. It's impossible to commit bribery, legal or otherwise, unless someone's on the take, and with campaign costs soaring, our politicians always have their hands out. One representative confessed that members of Congress are the only people in the world expected to take large amounts of money from strangers and then act as if it has no effect on their behavior. This explains why Democrats are having a hard time exploiting the culture of corruption embodied in the scandalous behavior of DeLay and Abramoff. Democrats are themselves up to their necks in the sludge. Just the other day one of the most powerful Democrats in the House bragged to reporters about tapping "uncharted donor fields in the financial industry"—reminding them, not so subtlely, of the possibility that after November the majority leader just might be a Democrat.
When it comes to selling influence, both parties have defined deviancy up, and Tony Soprano himself couldn't get away with some of the things that pass for business as usual in Washington. We have now learned that Jack Abramoff had almost 500 contacts with the Bush White House over the three years before his fall, and that Karl Rove and other presidential staff were treated to his favors and often intervened on his behalf. So brazen a pirate would have been forced to walk the plank long ago if Washington had not thrown its moral compass overboard.
Alas, despite all these disclosures, nothing is happening to clean up the place. Just as the Republicans in charge of the House kept secret those dirty emails sent to young pages by Rep. Mark Foley—a cover-up aimed at getting them past the election and holding his seat for the party—they are now trying to sweep the DeLay-Abramoff-Reed-and-Norquist scandals under the rug until after Nov. 7, hoping the public at large doesn't notice that the House is being run by Tom DeLay's team, minus DeLay. All the talk about reform is placebo.
The only way to counter the power of organized money is with organized and outraged people. Believe me, what members of Congress fear most is a grassroots movement that demands clean elections and an end to the buying and selling of influence—or else! If we leave it to the powers that be to clean up the mess that greed and chicanery have given us, we will wake up one day with a real Frankenstein of a system—a monster worse than the one created by Abramoff, DeLay and their cronies. By then it will be too late to save Lincoln's hope for "government of, by, and for the people."
Bill Moyers is a veteran television journalist for PBS and the president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy. This week, Bill Moyers returns to investigative journalism with MOYERS ON AMERICA, taking on crucial issues facing our nation. Previews available at www.pbs.org/moyers.
- October 4, "Capitol Crimes" investigates the Abramoff lobbying scandal, revealing the web of relationships, secret deals and political manipulation and opening a disturbing window on the dark side of American politics.
- October 11, "Is God Green?" looks at the implications of a debate among politically powerful conservative evangelical Christians over the handling of the environment.
- October 18 "The Net at Risk" reports on how mega-media corporations could restrict the democratic possibilities of the Web's new future.