2006-02-02 / This Week's Attitude

Scandal Provides Golden Opportunity To Reform Political $pending

This Week
By Neil S. Friedman

If elected officials ever expect to get the respect they believe they deserve from ever-skeptical Americans, they must drastically revolutionize — even end — their dubious relationships with lobbyists and other hefty campaign donors.

In case you didn’t take basic Poli Sci in college, a lobbyist works to bring about the passage of laws favorable to the special interest group they represent and sometimes even helps to draft that legislation.

Within a few decades after the U.S. became a nation, schemers and influence peddlers saw an opportunity to have an impact on elected officials. The term “lobbying” came about in the 1830’s when business representatives would hang around the lobbies of Congress and state legislatures to press their cause. Every major interest, such as business, labor and farmers, maintains permanent lobbies at federal and state levels, and foreign countries and businesses regularly hire American PR companies to promote their agendas with politicians.

Essentially, a lobbyist’s job is to persuade politicians to vote on legislation that favors the interest they represent. To do this not only is a lobbyist proficient at influencing the politician, but lobbyists also lavish gifts and other amenities — ostensibly within the law — to bolster their pressure.

The underlying problem with lobbying, which is nothing more than corrupted freedom of expression, has been that its undue influence and excessive pressure is typically subsidized with money and/or lucrative favors.

Lobbying, coupled with lawful, yet unrestrained campaign contributions, are what tend to make politics seem sleazy in the eyes of American citizens. And, in some instances, those reservations are validated.

Perhaps the ongoing Abramoff scandal will — once and for all — be the ultimate opportunity for politicians to finally — and seriously — reform political campaign funding and lobbying.

Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud, public corruption and tax evasion last month as part of a plea agreement. (No sooner did the indicted lobbyist plead than recipients — several Republicans and reportedly a few Democrats — returned contributions they’d received from Abramoff, as if that cleanses their records.) He is expected to cooperate with federal prosecutors in the ongoing corruption probe that could put the futures of several current Congressional representatives in jeopardy. It is no secret that Abramoff had close ties with GOP Representative Tom DeLay, who, as a result, was forced to relinquish his powerful House Majority Leader post earlier this month, as well as a few other Republicans, whose political futures may be in jeopardy.

Incidentally, these are the same Republicans — led by DeLay — who, when they gained control of Congress in 1994, vowed to reform the irregular tactics their Democrat opponents presumably employed to keep them in power.

Most Americans agree big business and PACs (political action committees) have too much influence in Washington. Half say they are dissatisfied with the nation’s campaign finance laws, but many say they don’t know enough to give an opinion. The other half are likely just apathetic to politics. Decades ago Justice Louis Brandeis, who served on the Supreme Court from 1916 to 1939, said, “If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectful.”

I doubt there is more than a handful of politicians — dead or alive — who ever took that suggestion seriously. Politicians at every level — and those who plan on making it a career – whether affiliated with a major party or not, should keep that notion in the back of their minds the next time they accept a political contribution.

When I infrequently make a campaign contribution, which has never been more than two figures, I offer it because I feel that candidate will do what’s best when in office. However, large donors, who take advantage of campaign financing ambiguities, expect to get something in return that will benefit them in the future.

Federal and state lawmakers should demonstrate — the sooner the better — some cahones, if you will, and put up large “Off Limits To Lobbyists” signs in their hallowed halls and put an end to suspicious associations that have contaminated government policies for over 175 years. Lawmakers also need to establish straightforward lobbying regulations and eliminate any loopholes that tend to make them ineffectual.

Moreover, irrefutably legitimate campaign financing methods must be established in order for politicians to earn trust and respect from constituents that will, before long, tarnish underhanded golden opportunities of lobbyists.

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