Breaking the Lobbyists' Stranglehold on Our Democracy

By Jim Hightower

September 9, 2008 6 min read

Jack Abramoff, the infamous Washington super-lobbyist who slipped on his own sleaze, was sentenced last week to four years in prison for corruption. How appropriate that his denouement came on the very day that John McCain was nominated by Republicans to be their presidential standard-bearer, and only one week after the Democratic Party convention.

The timing is appropriate because it puts the corrupting power of corporate lobbyists back in the news, even as both parties were chanting that they will be the agents of "change" in Washington.

In St. Paul and Denver, Republicans and Democrats alike were posing as ethical purists who would take on the special interests. Yet, out of camera view, those very interests were honored guests at both gatherings! They sat in the platinum-level splendor of skyboxes, watching and winking as the rhetoric flowed.

What neither party wants you to know is that their presidential nominating conventions were paid for by the latter-day Jack Abramoffs, who were sipping cocktails and schmoozing with elected officials in those corporate suites.

More than 100 corporations, from AFLAC to Xerox, pumped in about $1 million each to finance the shows below, including some 25 corporate swingers that sponsored both events.

McCain's pretense was especially cynical. Even though he publicly assails lobbyists as "birds of prey" who are after "the spoils" of government, he literally has put them in charge of his White House bid.

Campaign manager Rick Davis is a longtime lobbyist for AT&T and other telecom giants that have received legislative favors from Sen. McCain. Chief strategist Charlie Black is the dean of Washington's lobbying corps, representing such clients as Blackwater, GE, Philip Morris and Rupert Murdoch. Former top economic advisor Phil Gramm (who may become treasury secretary if McCain wins) is lobbying director for UBS, the Swiss-based banking conglomerate.

Fundraising chairman Wayne Berman lobbies for the Carlyle Group, Chevron, Shell, Verizon and others. The campaign's national security advisor, Randy Scheunemann, is a lobbyist for foreign governments, including the Republic of Georgia, whose cause McCain has embraced.

"Well, so what?" ask those who ply the trade. "Yes, we peddle political influence, but, hey, it's not illegal, except when an Abramoff takes the practice too far. Ours is an honorable profession that performs the noble function of enhancing the democratic participation of our clients. We are political guides and interpreters, merely helping these citizens maximize their voices in the halls of government. And we most certainly comply with the laws written to assure our ethical behavior."

Sheesh. Do we look like we have sucker wrappers around our heads? First, these Washington fixers only enhance the voices of "citizens" who can afford $600-an-hour lobbying fees. But, second, complying with Washington's ethical rules is a breeze and farce, since the lobbyists are inside the system writing the rules, making sure they are looser than a shoplifter's overcoat.

Last year, when Democrats took charge of Congress, there was a loud pledge by the new House leaders to reform the culture of corruption that had become pervasive under GOP leader Tom DeLay. Sure enough, in the Democrats' first month, such crass practices as letting lobbyists pay for members' junkets and rides on corporate jets were banned. Good! Hurrahs all around.

But, hold the champagne. Behind the scenes, the system had quietly punched a neat loophole into the ballyhooed reform. While a lobbyist can no longer put a key congress-critter on a client's jet and pay for a golfing getaway in Bermuda, the lobbyist can simply give $5,000 or so to the critter's campaign fund, so he or she can "pay their own way."

In another twist, at the recent Democratic and Republican nominating conventions, numerous lobbyist-sponsored parties were thrown to "honor" certain powerful members of Congress. Such shameless butt-kissing was supposedly banned by the 2007 lobbying reforms. But, through creative loopholery, the House ethics committee ruled before the conventions that the ban applies only to events honoring a single lawmaker, not to those benefiting two or more. As Lily Tomlin puts it, "No matter how cynical you get, it's almost impossible to keep up."

Some 35,000 lobbyists swarm our Capitol City — 65 for each of the 535 members of Congress. Corporate America is spending $6 million a day on this plutocratic, kleptocratic system, perverting the power of government to serve its narrow self-interest. Also, guided by their lobbyists, corporate interests dole out millions more each year in campaign donations that bind members of both parties to the corporate agenda.

The corruption is not a matter of the occasional Abramoff. The system itself is corrupt, giving moneyed interests the power to shout down the voice of the people.

Can this corporate stranglehold on the common good be broken? Yes! Such states as Maine, Arizona, Connecticut and North Carolina have shown the way by providing the alternative of public financing for candidates who agree to take no funding from special interests. It's a reform that works.

To learn more, including how you can help bring this reform to your state and to Congress, go to www.publiccampaign.org.

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.

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