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The Washington Post

How to Turn Congress Inc. Back to Just Congress

What is the biggest scandal of 2010 so far?

Allegations of fraudulent misrepresentation from Goldman Sachs? An oil spill that poses a threat to our environment and economy for generations? Mining operators freely ignoring safety violations and treating workers as disposable?

Each of these is bad. But perhaps the biggest political scandal is the one that aids and abets these others -- the pay-to-play system that buys up Congress, pollutes our political system with special-interest cash and deep-sixes the kind of bold reform agenda that we voted for and need.

The health-care industry has contributed more than $200 million to congressional candidates in the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Is it any wonder that there was no public option in the final bill, or that Medicare isn't able to negotiate lower drug prices for seniors the same way the Veterans Administration does for veterans?

Big banks and Wall Street financial firms spent more than $500 million since the beginning of 2009 on lobbying and campaign contributions, the center reports. In just the first quarter of 2010, the finance, insurance and real estate sectors spent more than $123 million on 2,057 lobbyists. Any bets on whether the final financial reform bill will create the kind of robust, independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency that would serve as a watchdog with teeth?

Big oil and gas spent nearly $170 million lobbying in 2009 -- nearly $1 billion in the past 12 years -- and has given more than $140 million to members of Congress in the past 20 years. Is it any surprise that we've seen so many exemptions from environmental studies for oil-exploration plans? Or that the climate bill is stalled and insufficient to confront the global warming crisis?


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It is clear that the kind of strong reforms we urgently need won't be achieved simply by electing a new president or new members of Congress. Despite the voters' mandate for change, the underlying problem of Washington -- what author and Washington Post reporter Robert Kaiser calls "so damn much money" -- remains unaltered and is in many ways more powerful than even before. In the wake of the Supreme Court's recent Citizens United decision -- which awarded corporations the rights of citizens when it comes to electioneering, allowing them to use their coffers to manipulate political discourse -- the prospect of a Congress "brought to you by (insert corporate sponsor here)" has only grown.

Americans must fight back with legislation that will help organized people defeat organized money. I'm not speaking of the Disclose Act -- a good response to Citizens United that would make corporate campaign funding more transparent. Democratic leaders must recognize that such efforts are mere triage and fail to get to the heart of the money problem in Washington. Congress should also pass the Fair Elections Now Act.

This legislation would sever ties between big-money campaign contributors and members of Congress, who, in the Senate, must raise an average of $27,000 every week they are in office in order to run competitive races. The bill would bar participating congressional candidates from accepting contributions larger than $100 and allow them to run honest campaigns with a blend of small donations and public matching funds.

Sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), the bill has 18 Senate co-sponsors (12 of whom signed on since the Citizens United decision) and 149 bipartisan cosponsors in the House. Activists are hopeful there will be a House vote as soon as this summer, and Durbin reportedly will push for the Senate to take it up after the House does.

Fighting for this bill is good policy and good politics. A recent Greenberg/Mark McKinnon poll found that voters support the Fair Elections Now Act by a 2-1 margin, 62 percent to 31 percent. Independents support it 67 percent to 30 percent. Is there a candidate in the country who wouldn't gain votes by saying, "I want a political system in which someone who doesn't take more than $100 from anybody can run a competitive race for Congress. I want a political process that makes Congress listen to their constituents and allows them to ignore the lobbyists with fat checks in hand"?

It was a Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, who had it right when he told Congress, "All contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law." He was so worried about the power of the trusts that he called for public financing of elections. More than 100 years later we can take a desperately needed step to protect the public interest and clean up our politics by passing this legislation.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel is an American editor and publisher. She is the editor, publisher, and part-owner of the magazine The Nation. She has been the magazine's editor since 1995.


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