Congress still runs on legalized bribery

Commentator Robert Reich


BOB MOON: The Senate voted unanimously yesterday to force lawmakers to come clean about earmarks. Those are the pet projects they hide away in legislation. Another measure designed to get even tougher on lobbyist gifts and travel is also gathering momentum. This week, ethics and lobbying reform are high on the agenda in Congress. But Marketplace commentator Robert Reich thinks the Democrats are aiming way too low.

ROBERT REICH: The real scandal in Washington is the everyday bribery that remains legal.

I'm talking about campaign contributions given for legislative favors — a particular provision in this or that bill, an amendment here, an earmarked appropriation there.

Lobbyists orchestrate this contemptible process. And members of Congress keep it going because the money buys television time for their reelection campaigns. And television advertising keeps them in power.

The system is out of control. It cost the average candidate three times more to run for Congress in 2006 than it did in 1990, adjusted for inflation.

Members now devote most of their time to fundraising instead of representing their constituents.

The number of lobbyists in Washington has doubled over the past 10 years. Now, there are 60 for every single member of Congress. Lobbyists spent $2.4 billion last year. And at the rate they continue to spend, you can bet they're getting every penny's worth for their clients.

Banning gifts, meals and junkets won't make any difference to this everyday exchange of campaign money for legislative favor. And disclosing who sponsored what earmarks won't reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars going to special interests, because the incentives to make the deal are still there on both sides.

Ten years ago, there were 3,000 earmarks. Last year, there were 14,000, costing taxpayers over $47 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The only way to stop this system of legalized bribery is to cut it off at its core.

Require television and radio networks that use the public airwaves to offer candidates free time. Give public financing to candidates who agree to strict limits on fundraising.

And ban earmarks altogether. There's no good reason why taxpayer money should be appropriated for any special interest.

This ethics and lobbying bill won't change the way business is done in Washington. It will only change the way it appears to be done.

MOON: Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.


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