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Only Appearing to Clean House
Published on Thursday, January 18, 2007 by CommonDreams.org
Only Appearing to Clean House
by Robert B. Reich
 
Democrats are eager to show they’re serious about reforming the way Congress does business. So they’re pushing a new ethics and lobbying bill that will ban gifts, meals, and free trips from lobbyists and their clients, and require that the legislative sponsors of all earmarks for pet projects be identified in the legislation.

But calling these reforms is like saying you’ve cleaned the house when all you’ve done is taken out the garbage.

The real scandal in Washington is the everyday bribery that remains legal. I’m talking about campaign contributions given for legislative favors – a particular provision in this or that bill, an amendment here, an earmarked appropriation there. Lobbyists orchestrate this contemptible process. And members of congress keep it going because the money buys television time for their re-election campaigns, and television advertising keeps them in power.

The system is out of control. It cost the average candidate three times more to run for Congress in 2006 than it did in 1990, adjusted for inflation. Members now devote most of their time to fund raising instead of representing their constituents.

The number of lobbyists in Washington has doubled over the past ten years. Now, there are 60 of them for every single member of Congress. They spent $2.4 billion last year. And at the rate they continue to spend, you can bet they’re getting every penny’s worth for their clients.

Banning gifts, meals, and junkets won’t make any difference to this everyday exchange of campaign money for legislative favors. And disclosing who sponsors what earmarks won’t reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars going to special interests because the incentives to make the deal are still there, on both sides. Under these circumstances, a disclosure is like an advertisement – look what I’ve done for my contributors! Ten years ago, there were 3,000 earmarks. Last year, there were 14,000, costing taxpayers over $47 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The problem extends beyond earmarks. Consider what happened to the Democrat’s Medicare drug bill. It was supposed to force Medicare to bargain for lower drug prices, but it doesn’t allow Medicare to remove from its approved list drugs not offered at a discount. Chalk up another one for Big Pharma and its campaign slush fund.

The only way to stop the system of legalized bribery is to cut it off at its roots. Require television and radio networks that use the public airwaves to offer candidates free time. Give public financing to candidates who agree to strict limits on fund-raising. And ban earmarks altogether. There’s no good reason why taxpayer money should be appropriated for any special interest.

The Democrats took over Congress a few weeks ago on a tidal wave of public outrage about the way business is done in Washington. But their ethics and lobbying bill won’t change the way business is done in Washington. It will only change the way it appears to be done.

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