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With Special Interest Index, Voters Can Gauge How Indebted Lawmakers Are to Big Business

Oct. 9, 2006

With Special Interest Index, Voters Can Gauge How Indebted Lawmakers Are to Big Business

Statement of Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen President

Today, we are releasing information vital to voters – information that will help them gauge whether their members of Congress represent them or the interests of big business. We are making available information detailing the amount of contributions from lobbyists, the value of privately funded travel accepted by the lawmakers, the amount of contributions from out-of-state donors, the percentage of contributions from donors who give $200 or less, and the amount of contributions from political action committees.

Our focus today is on 10 states, but we will be releasing information about members of Congress in the rest of the country very shortly. The 10 states are: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, , New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

This information, which we are making easily available to voters on a Web site, www.CleanUpwashington.org, is so important because of the corrosive influence money has on politics.

Our system is awash in campaign cash from big business and major industries, and the results have been appalling.

We’ve seen one member of Congress – Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California – jailed for corruption, and another – Bob Ney of Ohio – plead guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and lying on disclosure forms about gifts received from indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is under indictment, and the FBI is closing in on Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson, in whose freezer agents found $90,000.

When lobbyists give members of Congress money, they expect something in return, and lawmakers know that. Many of them deliver – to the detriment of the public.

That’s why Congress didn’t do anything to ease skyrocketing gas prices – most members are beholden to the oil and gas industry.

That’s why we got Medicare prescription drug legislation that forbids the government from negotiating the lowest possible price for medications. It’s why members of Congress get a raise while the minimum wage stagnates.

And it’s why we get legislation that makes it harder for people to file for bankruptcy when they lose their livelihoods as a result of a serious illness and harder for them to climb out of debt.

While the average American voter struggles to make ends meet, back in Washington, big business is throwing parties for lawmakers, raising money for them, even flying them to exotic getaways. In return, they get favorable legislation, tax breaks and enormous subsidies, all financed by the taxpayer.

Incumbent members of Congress are awash in special interest money. Most members depend on PAC and lobbyist money compared to the amount of small contributions. Many lawmakers rely heavily on out-of-state contributions and large donors.

Our report shows that most lobbyist money goes to senior, ranking members of Congress or lawmakers who are committee chairs or subcommittee chairs – especially if they are members of the appropriations committee.

For instance, Reps. Michael Oxley of Ohio, Jerry Lewis of California, John Boehner of Ohio, Dennis Hastert of Illinois, John Murtha of Pennsylvania and Sen. Arlen Specter, also of Pennsylvania, are among the top recipients of lobbyist cash. All are in leadership positions or on powerful committees.

There is a solution, and that is public funding of elections, which is also known as “clean elections.”

It is already in practice successfully in several states.

Arizona and Maine have used clean elections since 2000, and the state legislature in Connecticut passed a Clean Elections bill in December 2005. North Carolina started public funding for judicial appellate races in 2004.

This system is urgently needed on the federal level, so more and different voices are heard on Capitol Hill, and so candidates can spend less time raising money and more time serving the public.

The benefits of public funding for congressional candidates are many: 1) More and different voices in the legislature can be heard; 2) there is less pressure on lawmakers to cater to donors; 3) lawmakers have more time to spend serving the public and speaking with constituents; and 4) there is increased public confidence in the integrity of elections and elected officials

In addition, we need real lobby and ethics reform in Washington. So far, this Congress has refused to pass meaningful reform to clean up its act despite public outrage over the constant ooze of scandal from Capitol Hill from the leadership down. This reform has not been enacted because this Congress is so beholden to corporate interests that don’t want information disclosed about grassroots lobbying and don’t want gift bans, travel limits or enforcement for lobbyists and members of Congress through an Office of Public Integrity.

We desperately need to restore public confidence in the federal elections.