System of Legalized Bribery Hurts Everyone in America; Reform Must Eliminate Money From the System

Jan. 23, 2006

System of Legalized Bribery Hurts Everyone in America; Reform Must Eliminate Money From the System

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen

I would like to express my appreciation to members of Congress who are working hard to reform the lobbying system.

The seven groups are here today to offer what we consider the best solutions to a scourge that has harmed the entire country. That is, the system of legalized bribery that is endemic to Washington.

Our political system is awash in money to an extent that we have never seen. It is not an exaggeration to say that Congress is being run like a syndicate. Lobbyists curry favor with lawmakers in a number of ways, most importantly supplying their re-election money and often bundling huge campaign contributions to help members retain their jobs. Lobbyists and their clients fly lawmakers to exotic locales for fun-filled excursions and ferry them around the country on corporate jets to campaign. Lobbyists even serve as PAC treasurers.

Naturally, when the lobbyists lean on the lawmakers for legislative favors, they are inclined to pony up. Lawmakers slip special projects into spending bills and write laws that heap tax breaks on certain industries. They give away the U.S. Treasury because they are beholden to the people who supply them with campaign cash.

Members of Congress, meanwhile, increasingly cash in themselves as top-flight lobbyists or demand that lobbying firms hire applicants from only one political party.

Now, thanks to Jack Abramoff’s criminal transgressions, both parties are falling all over themselves to offer ways to reform this corrupt system. We are heartened by their new-found vigor. But our optimism is tempered by the need to see specifics.    

As identified in our six benchmarks for lobbying reform, prohibiting private interests from financing trips for lawmakers is essential, as is an air-tight ban on gifts. Comments made and proposals circulated in recent days provide some optimism in this area. We are encouraged that many are calling for a two-year cooling-off period during which lawmakers and staff who leave Capitol Hill would be prohibited from lobbying. Everyone seems to recognize the need to develop a much more robust disclosure system. And Democratic leaders, including in the Senate, seem to recognize that the ethics process is fundamentally flawed and, like our groups, have called for an independent Office of Public Integrity for Congress.

Our organizations are closely examining how, specifically, the various proposals meet these overarching benchmarks. For instance, does the measure include revealing the amount spent on grassroots lobbying and require lobbyists to file a list of the members’ offices and the congressional committees they lobby? Does the two-year ban on lobbying for members of Congress also include a prohibition on them developing strategy and supervising others? Will an Office of Public Integrity be given investigative authority to determine if allegations about wrongdoing by a member have sufficient merit to be forwarded to the ethics committee or the Justice Department to determine punishment?

But one of our benchmarks – our priority benchmark – has been missing from the discussion in Congress so far and, I might add, in the media. That is the need to break the nexus between lobbyists, lawmakers and campaign cash. Our groups are united in the belief that there can be no true reform without addressing this problem head-on.

Under the current system, legislators cannot get elected without a lot of money, and lobbyists often don’t get in the door without delivering it. At rock bottom, that is the root cause of the Abramoff scandal – much more than the foreign junkets, skybox soirees and freebies at Signatures restaurant. Remember, Abramoff personally contributed $204,000 to federal officeholders since 1999. But the bigger bet was placed with the $4.2 million in political contributions Abramoff’s clients, mainly Indian casinos, played with during that time.

Thus, we are calling on Congress to take the following steps:
 

  • Cap contributions from lobbyists and lobbying firm PACs at $200 per candidate per election;
  • Prohibit lobbyists from arranging fundraisers or bundling campaign contributions from others;
  • Prohibit lobbyists from serving as officials on candidate campaign committees and leadership PACs; and
  • Prohibit lobbyists and their organizations from paying for events “honoring” members of Congress and from contributing to members’ foundations.

This is a bold proposal. We know that. And it will take bold leadership from lawmakers to put it on the agenda.

Allowing rivers of money to continue flowing through the system, just with more disclosure, is not enough. Knowing that a lobbyist has handed a fat check to a lawmaker is useful, but it doesn’t change the fact that the lobbyist expects something in return. 

That’s why, in coming days we will fan out across Capitol Hill to find champions willing to take on this huge fight. It will not be easy – but it must be done.

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To read the press release, click here.