Nick Nyhart is a co-founder and the present executive director of Public Campaign , a nine-year-old national organization dedicated to winning comprehensive “Clean Money” campaign finance reform.
In the midst of the Abramoff and DeLay-related scandals, and with more revelations sure to come, Capitol Hill lawmakers are churning out new lobbying reform proposals at the rate D.C. coffee bistros pour lattes. Is lobbying reform really the answer? Depends on what the question is.
The bulk of the offerings from members of both parties deal with the most visible and outrageous aspects of the recent controversies. They include ending the junkets paid for by private interests, lengthening the time that former members of Congress and their senior staff must wait before returning to the Hill as lobbyists, and further limiting the private gifts still allowed to be given to lawmakers. In addition, Democrats have put forward measures designed to curb other dubious practices, from cronyism in federal hiring to secret preparation of and quick votes on long and complex policy measures, often laden with special interest perks. Democrats are also targeting the GOP’s K Street Project, seeking to end the practice of private patronage that ensures lobbying firms hire Republican congressional staffers and political operatives.
There is much to cheer in these sets of reform proposals. If the matter at hand is how to decrease the ability of lobbyists to provide lifestyle enhancements to members of Congress in return for policy favors, these reforms offer an answer. If the key question is how to protect the political and policy process from abuses of power by majority party legislative leaders, these measures also have much to offer. But, if the larger dilemma is how to ensure that the concerns of ordinary Americans are well represented in a decision-making process currently dominated by wealthy vested interests, the most recent round of reforms being offered inside the Beltway falls remarkably short.
Nothing in the current set of proposals disrupts the larger pay-to-play dynamic in which money-laden special interests supply the cash required to run a modern political campaign in return for public policy that satisfies their needs. The scope of this practice significantly affects the lives of most Americans on issues ranging from healthcare to taxation, from energy policy to environmental concerns. As a start, Congress should consider banning or sharply restricting the flow of lobbyist political money to lawmakers. After all, if a free lunch is deemed inappropriate, then surely tens of thousands of dollars in bundled campaign contributions present a much greater conflict.
But cutting the lobbyists out of the picture isn’t enough. Take the example of Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s choice to be his caucus’ point person on lobby reform. Santorum has received more in lobbyist money this political cycle than any of his colleagues. Since 2001, he has raised $182,470 from lobbyists. But that’s just slightly more than 2 percent of the $11.5 million total in campaign cash during that period. In contrast to his lobbyist totals, Santorum’s taken $1.3 million from finance, insurance and real estate companies—the very sorts of interests that hire these lobbyists. And it’s the same for Congress as a whole. In the 2004 elections lobbyists contributed $26.9 million to members of Congress, a sizable chunk of change. However, this amount is dwarfed by the $1.5 billion contributed by other business interests.
With the Abramoff-DeLay string of scandals generating a national spotlight on the way Washington works, there’s an opportunity to begin advancing serious alternatives that would alter the fundamental dynamics of campaign money’s corrupting influence. A number of states and cities are already far down that path, having enacted “Clean Elections” systems of publicly financed elections. Under the clean model, candidates who meet a fixed threshold of small qualifying donations receive a grant of public money for their campaigns, enough to run a competitive race. In return, they agree to accept no more private money. If they have a privately funded opponent who spends more than the public grant amount or if they are attacked by independent expenditures, additional matching grants are made to maintain a level playing field. In Arizona and Maine, where Clean Elections have been in place for three full elections, more candidates have used the system and been elected with each new political cycle.
Officeholders using the clean system shed their dependency on private political contributors, breaking the dynamic of policy favors exchanged for financial support during campaign season. The private money chase disappears for publicly financed candidates and the voice of voters is amplified as the political leverage of lobbyists and the interests they represent decreases. In addition to Arizona and Maine, the system has been put in place for at least some offices in five other states (Connecticut, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and Vermont, as well as in Albuquerque, N.M. and Portland, Ore.).
No one expects that today’s Congress will adopt such a far-reaching change as an immediate response to the current political crisis. But it is time for that discussion to begin if the need for deeper solutions to pay-to-play politics is to be addressed. And that leads to a new question: which of our lawmakers, from either party, will stand up and take the lead in putting public financing on the table as the congressional reform policy debate unfolds in the weeks and months ahead?