David Donnelly is the national campaigns director for the Public Campaign Action Fund.
Rep. Tom DeLay gave his farewell speech yesterday, and K Street—the corridor of power, influence and money in our nation’s capitol—must have wept a trail of tears.
Now he packs his boxes in the Cannon House Office Building, moves from his longtime home in Sugar Land, Texas, to Alexandria, Virginia, and settles into private life. DeLay leaves behind a Congress that has produced significant achievements for the corporate interests—the polluting oil and chemical companies, the credit card industry, the big drug corporations and insurance companies—that fueled his campaign finance empire.
Even with DeLay gone, scandals and stories of big money influence keep coming and coming, with examples as far as the eyes can bear to see:
—Ninety thousand dollars was found in the freezer Louisiana Democrat Rep. William Jefferson, with $10,000 missing from the briefcase he was videotaped receiving from an FBI informant.
—Media and advocacy groups reported recently that private interests spent $50 million since 1990 to pay for trips and entertainment for members of Congress and their staffs.
—The chair of the House Appropriations Committee, California Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis, was exposed by investigative reporters to have lined up earmarks for clients of a former staffer-turned-lobbyist and for shaking down donors for favors.
Much is made about the bipartisan nature of these individual scandals, but I think the rush by some pundits and reporters—and GOP partisans—to claim that “everyone does it” misses the mark because it fails to distinguish between petty, personal corruption, like Jefferson’s, and the real systemic corruption of the sale of public policy to the highest bidder, like how Tom DeLay exploited the campaign finance system.
To be sure, DeLay was also personally enriched by his powerful position and engaged in his share of petty corruption. For example, earlier this week, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer winning reporter Jeff Smith reported that DeLay’s former chief of staff Ed Buckham, who is now cooperating with the Feds after a guilty plea, set up a nearly $500,000 retirement fund for DeLay’s wife Christine.
But DeLay did more than use his position to globetrot and eat fancy meals. You’ll recall that until indicted in Texas last September, he was House Majority Leader and responsible for advancing the entire GOP agenda. And it was this agenda he turned over to wealthy backers from the oil, credit card, drug, insurance and chemical industries, to name a few, in exchange for their loyalty to Republican candidates and causes. These interests demonstrated their loyalty with campaign cash.
DeLay’s legacy is eerily reminiscent of the famous turn of the 20th century Republican Senator Boies Penrose, who said, “I believe in a division of labor. You send us to Congress; we pass the laws under which you make money … and out of your profits you further contribute to our campaigns funds to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money.” Sound familiar?
For the country, DeLay’s brand of corruption has much more serious and damaging consequences than the corruption of personal enrichment. You can’t equate oil and gas interests lining the pockets of members of Congress to secure $16 billion in profits with $90,000 in a freezer. (For the record, Public Campaign Action Fund was the first to call on DeLay and Jefferson to resign.) Nor can you say the hundreds of millions that big drug corporations poured into politics to prevent Medicare from using its purchasing power to lower prices is the same as a few free boxing tickets.
Don’t get me wrong. All corruption is bad and should end. But not all corruption is created equal.
Real people—you know, those who live outside of Washington—are affected by a Congress in hock to powerful interests. We pay the real cost of corruption in our campaign finance system. We pay for it everyday in higher taxes because of billions in tax breaks given to corporations that take our jobs overseas, and we pay it everyday at the gas pump and at the pharmacy counter. We’re paying for it in ways large and small because of political system that listens to donors and not to us.
That’s why these scandals should not be reduced to catching crooked politicians who sold themselves for free trips to Scotland with Jack Abramoff. That lets those elected officials left behind in Congress off the hook. The real scandal is also what is legally permitted day in, day out, with a wink, a nod and an envelope filled with campaign donations. And after DeLay, this system will continue unless citizens demand change.
K Street is not losing a golfing buddy with DeLay’s end. Lobbyists are losing a highly effective rainmaker for their clients, but they’ve got a long line of members who are willing to step in. And, until we have a system of Clean Elections-style public financing for Congress, like the laws working well in Maine, Arizona, and other states and cities, we the people will literally pay the price of our politicians’ corruption.