A Culture of Corruption: Let's Save Our Democracy by Getting Money Out of Politics

Money is choking our democracy to death. Our elections are bought out from under us and our public officials are doing the bidding of mercenaries. So powerful is the hold of wealth on politics that we cannot say America is working for all Americans. The majority may support such broad social goals as affordable medical coverage for all, decent wages for working people, safe working conditions, a secure retirement, and clean air and water, but there is no government "of, by, and for the people" to deliver on those aspirations.

Our system of privately financed campaigns has shut regular people out of any meaningful participation in democracy. Less than one-half of one percent of all Americans made a political contribution of $200 or more to a federal candidate in 2004. When the average cost of winning a seat in the House of Representatives has topped $1 million, we can no longer refer to that chamber as "The People's House." Congress belongs to the highest bidder.

At the same time that the cost of getting elected is exploding beyond the reach of ordinary people, the business of influencing our elected representatives has become a growth industry. Since President Bush was elected the number of registered lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled. That's 16,342 lobbyists in 2000 and 34,785 last year: 65 lobbyists for every member of Congress. The total spent per month by special interests wining, dining, and seducing federal officials is now nearly $200 million. Per month.

Numbers don't tell the whole story. With pro-corporate officials running both the executive and legislative branches, lobbying that was once reactive has sallied forth to buy huge chunks of public policy. One example: In 2004 the computer maker Hewlett-Packard sought Republican-backed legislation that would enable it to bring back to the United States, at a dramatically lowered tax rate, as much as $14.5 billion in profits from foreign subsidiaries. The company nearly doubled its budget for contract lobbyists and took on an elite lobbying firm as its Washington arm. Presto! The legislation passed. The company's director of government affairs was quite candid: "We're trying to take advantage of the fact that Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House."

GREED WITHOUT APOLOGIES--I am an equal opportunity muckraker. Anyone who saw the documentary my team and I produced on the illegal fund-raising for Bill Clinton's re-election knows I am no fan of the Democratic money-machine that helped tear away the party from whatever roots it had in the struggles of working people. But today the Republicans own the government lock, stock, and barrel. And they have turned their self-proclaimed revolution into a cash cow.

Look back at the bulk of legislation passed by Congress in the past decade: an energy bill that gives oil companies huge tax breaks at the same time that ExxonMobil has just posted $36.13 billion in profits and our gasoline and home heating bills are at an all-time high; a bankruptcy "reform" bill written by credit card companies to make it harder for poor debtors to escape the burdens of divorce or medical catastrophe; the deregulation of the banking, securities and insurance sectors, which brought on rampant corporate malfeasance and greed and the destruction of the retirement plans of millions of small investors; the deregulation of the telecommunications sector, which led to cable industry price-gouging and an undermining of news coverage; protection for rampant overpricing of pharmaceutical drugs; and the blocking of even the mildest attempt to prevent American corporations from dodging an estimated $50 billion in annual taxes by opening a P.O. box in an off-shore tax haven like the Cayman Islands.

In every case the results were produced by rivers of cash flowing to favored politicians from interests whose return on their investment put Wall Street equities to shame. This happens because our public representatives need huge sums to finance their campaigns, especially to pay for television advertising. The masters of the money game have taken advantage of that weakness in our democracy to turn our elections into auctions.

A WALK DOWN K STREET--It's the Wall Street of lobbying, the address of many of Washington's biggest lobbying firms. The "K Street Project"--the most successful shakedown operation since the first Gilded Age--was the brainchild of Representative Tom DeLay and Grover Norquist, the right-wing strategist who famously said that his goal is to shrink government so that it can be "drowned in a bathtub" (when, finally, it will be too impotent to protect democracy from plunder and powerless citizens from the rapacity of corporate power). For his part, Tom DeLay ran a pest exterminating business in Sugar Land, Texas, where he hated government regulators who dared to tell him that some of the pesticides he used were dangerous. He got himself elected to the Texas legislature at a time when the Republicans were becoming the majority in the once-solid Democratic South, and early in his new career "Hot Tub Tom," as he was known in Austin, became a born-again Christian.

In addition to finding Jesus, Tom DeLay discovered the power of money to drive his career. By raising more than $2 million from lobbyists and business groups and distributing it to dozens of Republican candidates in 1994, the year of the Republican breakthrough in the House, DeLay bought the loyalty of many freshmen legislators who helped elect him Majority Whip, the House's number three man.

He wasted no time in inviting lobbyists to write the Republican agenda. Their first priority was "Project Relief"--"relief" from labor standards that protected workers from the physical injuries of repetitive work, "relief" from tougher rules on meat inspection, "relief" from effective monitoring of hazardous air pollutants. Scores of companies were soon adding one juicy and expensive tidbit after another. On the eve of the debate, according to Michael Weisskopf and David Maraniss of the Washington Post, 20 major corporate groups advised lawmakers that "this was a key vote, one that would be considered in future campaign contributions."

The Machine was off and running. As then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich famously told the lobbyists: "If you are going to play in our revolution, you have to live by our rules." The rules were simple enough. Contribute to Republicans only. Hire only Republicans as lobbyists (priority preference: DeLay's own staff). Centralize the power to write legislation in the hands of the party bosses (assisted by hovering lobbyists). Allow no amendments. Produce bills in secret. Permit members no time to read them. Pass important bills late at night. Avoid compromise by banning Democrats from conference committees. Give lobbyists and campaign contributors what they want.

While examples abound of how the rules stacked the deck, consider one: the Medicare prescription coverage bill. Enacted after midnight, its hundreds and hundreds of pages unintelligible to anyone but lobbyists, the legislation enriched the pharmaceutical and insurance companies while giving senior citizens and taxpayers the shaft.

THE MONEY MAN--DeLay, who had announced that God had chosen him to return American to a "biblical worldview," needed help to sustain the cash flow necessary for spreading the Gospel of Greed. He found it in a fellow right-wing ideologue named Jack Abramoff, who personified the K-Street money-machine of which DeLay, with the blessing of his party's leaders, was the major-domo. It was Abramoff who helped DeLay raise those millions of dollars from campaign donors to create the base for an empire of corruption.

Abramoff has now pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials. It's a spectacular fall for a man whose rise to power began in his school days with his election as chairman of the College Republicans. Despite its innocuous name, the organization became a political attack machine for the far right and a launching pad for younger conservatives on the make.

"Our job," Abramoff, then 22 years old, wrote after his first visit to the Reagan White House, "is to remove liberals from power permanently. . . ." (He would later acknowledge that his agenda also included moving K Street closer to the Republican Party.) Karl Rove had once held the same job as chairman. So did Grover Norquist, who ran Abramoff's campaign. A youthful $200-a-month intern named Ralph Reed was at their side. These were the rising young stars of the conservative movement who came to town to lead a revolution and stayed to run a racket.

CASINO ROYALE--Abramoff made his name, so to speak, representing Indian tribes and their gambling interests. As his partner he hired a DeLay crony named Michael Scanlon. Together they would bilk half a dozen tribes who hired them to protect their gambling interests from competition. What the two men had to offer, of course, was their connections to the Republican power structure, including members of Congress, friends at the White House (Abramoff's personal assistant became the personal assistant of Karl Rove), Christian Right activists like Reed, and right-wing ideologues like Norquist. The network hummed smoothly for its inside traders--as, for example, when two lobbying clients of Abramoff paid $25,000 to Norquist's organization, Americans for Tax Reform, for lunch at the White House and a meeting with President Bush in May 2001, according to the Texas Observer.

In a scheme they called "Gimme Five." Abramoff would refer tribes to Scanlon for grassroots public-relations work, and Scanlon would then kick back about 50 percent to Abramoff, all without the tribes' knowledge. Before it was over, the tribes had paid the two lobbyists $82 million, much of it going directly into Abramoff's and Scanlon's pockets. And that doesn't count the thousands more that Abramoff directed the tribes to pay out in campaign contributions.

Some of the money found its way into an outfit called the Council of Republicans for Environment Advocacy, founded by Gale Norton before she was appointed to run the Department of the Interior, which--surprise! surprise!--is the agency most responsible for Indian gaming rights. Some went to so-called charities, set up by Abramoff and DeLay, that filtered money for lavish trips for members of Congress and their staffs, as well as salaries for Congressional family members and DeLay's pet projects.

And some of the money found its way to the Holy High Rollers of the Christian Right. Ralph Reed, for one, had his hand out. Reed had become the religious right's poster boy against gambling ("We believe gambling is a cancer on the American body politic," he had said). Now Abramoff and Scanlon would pay Reed some $4 million to help them protect their own gaming interests. His assignment was to whip up Christian opposition to gambling initiatives that could cut into the profits of Abramoff's clients.

Reed enlisted some of the brightest stars in the Christian firmament in a ruse conducted on Abramoff's behalf: they would oppose gambling on religious and moral grounds in strategic places at decisive moments when competition threatened Abramoff's clients. Bogus Christian groups were part of the strategy. A gaggle of influential Baptist preachers in Texas danced to Reed's fiddling. Folks in Louisiana heard the voice of God on the radio--performed by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson--thundering against a riverboat gambling scheme that Abramoff feared would jeopardize the profits of a client. Reed even got James Dobson, whose nationwide radio "ministry" reaches millions of people (and whose videos helped Tom DeLay find Jesus) to deluge the Interior Department and White House with telephone calls from indignant Christians.

Abramoff arranged for the Mississippi Choctaws, who were trying to stave off competition from other tribes, to contribute over $1 million to Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, which then passed the money along to the Alabama Christian Coalition and to another anti-gambling group Reed had duped into aiding the cause. It is unclear how much these Christian soldiers knew about the true purpose of their crusade, but Reed knew all along that his money was coming from Abramoff. The e-mails between the two men read like a modern version of Elmer Gantry.

As reported by the Washington Post and National Journal, some of Abramoff's money from lobbying went to start a non-profit organization called the U.S. Family Network, founded with the help of a top aide to Tom DeLay while he was still in DeLay's employ (his salary at the time paid by--you guessed it--taxpayers). DeLay even wrote a fundraising letter in its behalf. The group announced that its purpose was to promote policies favorable for "families, the economic prosperity, social improvement, moral fitness, and general well being of the United States," and its fund-raising screeds warned that the American family "is being attacked from all sides: crime, drugs, pornography . . . and gambling." But its first donation came from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, followed by other Abramoff clients who couldn't care less about the professed moral agenda.

The U.S. Family Network turns out to be another scam in the Abramoff-DeLay money laundering machine. Its money paid for attack ads on Democrats, bought a townhouse three blocks from DeLay's Congressional quarters, providing him with free office space where he could go to raise funds for the Machine, and awarded DeLay's wife a sizable salary.

But that's the least of it. Working with Abramoff through a now defunct law firm in London and an obscure offshore company in the Bahamas, oil and gas executives from Russia used the U.S. Family Network to funnel money to influence Tom DeLay, then-majority leader of the House of Representatives. A Christian pastor recruited to serve as the titular president of the organization was told by DeLay's sidekick that $1 million was passed through from sources in Russia who wanted DeLay's support for legislation enabling the International Monetary Fund to bail out the faltering Russian economy without demanding new taxes on the country's energy industry. Lo and behold, there was Tom Delay, appearing on an obliging Fox News television show, arguing the Russian position. The rueful pastor who was the organization's nominal head said he was told, "This is the way things work in Washington."

"REFORM" TALK FIZZLES--The Republican leaders would have us believe this is just a "lobbying scandal." They assume that if they pass a few minor reforms to put a little distance between the politician and the lobbyist, we will think everything is okay and they can go back to business as usual. Just look at Congressman John Boehner, elected to replace Tom DeLay as House Majority Leader. He's been a full player in the K Street Project and DeLay's money machine. The top lobbyists in town frequent his office. He thinks nothing of cruising with them in the Caribbean or of hopping on corporate jets arranged by them. This is the man who ten years ago moved around the floor of the House--the "People's House"--handing out checks from tobacco executives.

As for Tom Delay? He is under indictment in Texas for money laundering and had to resign as Majority Leader. But just the other day the party bosses gave him a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, where big contributors get their rewards. And--are you ready for this?--they put him on the subcommittee overseeing the budget of the Justice Department, which is investigating the Abramoff scandal, including Abramoff's connections to DeLay. I'm not making this up. It's business as usual. Rotten business as usual.

I have touched on only a few of the astonishing details pouring out about the sacking of Washington. The corrupting power of money in politics is an old story. This time is different, because in a one-party government the opposition is impotent and the corporate media, with a few notable exceptions, have bought into the notion that this is "just the way Washington works." Already the calls for reform are fading away.

CLEAN ELECTIONS--You may say, "What can we do about it? These forces are too rich, too powerful, too entrenched to be defeated." Maybe. But if others had given up before us, blacks would still be three-fifths of a person, women wouldn't have the vote, workers couldn't organize, and children would still be working in the mines. It's time to fight again. These people in Washington have no right to be doing what they are doing. It's not their government, it's your government. They work for you, and if they let you down and sell you out, they should be fired. That goes for everyone, from the lowliest bureaucrat in town to the senior leaders of Congress on up to the president of the United States. The stakes are too high for us to give up.

Fortunately, there is something we can do. A movement is gathering across the country that could restore democracy to a country run by money. It's the "clean money" campaign for the public funding of our elections. Maine led the way in 2000. Arizona followed suit. So have several municipalities, including Portland, Oregon, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Races are more competitive and attract a more diverse group of candidates.

No sooner had Janet Napolitano been elected governor of Arizona under the state's public financing program than she instituted reforms establishing low-cost prescription drug subsidies for seniors. There have also been advances in Maine in providing low-cost prescription drugs for residents. Why? Because the politicians write the legislation, not the lobbyists.

Look what happened in Connecticut last year, a state rocked by multiple political scandals. People decided to break the link between big donors and public officials. By December the legislature had passed clean-money reform, banning campaign contributions from lobbyists and state contractors. Connecticut is the first state where the legislature and governor have approved full public funding for their own races. In thirty other states clean-money campaigns are also forming. (You can find out more about the movement at the website of Public Campaign.)

While public funding won't solve all the problems--the Abramoffs and DeLays of the world will always find ways to abuse the public trust--it would go a long way toward restoring the hope of government "of, by, and for the people." Even some business lobbyists are having second thoughts. Business Week recently quoted one of them as saying: "As a conservative, I've always opposed government involvement. But it seems to me the real answer is federal financing of Congressional elections."

Just think: For about $10 per taxpayer, per year, we, the people, could buy back our politicians in Congress and the White House with full public funding. But time is running out. Unless we offer qualified candidates a different source of campaign funding with clean, disinterested and accountable public money, the selling of America will go on, and we will wake up one day in a country we no longer recognize.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.