Wednesday, October 4, 2006
A House For Sale
I think of how often I have criticized the corrupt regimes of Central and South American and Africa when the same level of corruption is occurring in my nation's capitol. After watching this evening's broadcast of Moyers on America: Capitol Crimes it is clearer than ever that the American Congress has been sold lot, stock and barrel to the highest bidder.
While the broadcast's primary focus was an in-depth overview of the dealings of Jack Abramoff, Delay and Ney, it is clear that their corruption while excessive was not an aberation. In fact, both political parties have placed the "For Sale" sign on Congress. I am left wondering if Congress will ever represent the American public ever again.
The cards are on the table. And there have been enough headlines detailing the levels of corruption that no one can say they didn't know. If the American people don't act now to take back our house it will simply and we will have no one but ourselves to blame.
Accompanying the MOYERS ON AMERICA series, PBS has launched what they are calling "Citizens Class". Citizen Clas is an interactive online curriculum designed to encourage and facilitate public discussiong of the issues raised by the Moyers on America series. The workshop features multimedia discussions, reference materials on the key perspectives presented in the program, and questions for further reflection. If you are interested in reclaiming America's houses please visit Citizens Class and tell your friends. The following is an excerpt from one lesson.
Class Is in Session...
Over the past five years, the number of lobbyists in Washington has doubled to nearly 35,000; the yearly amount spent on lobbying has increased by nearly a billion dollars to $2.3 billion; and today more than 230 former congressmen, now lobbyists, continue walk the halls of the Hill, attempting to influence the way current congressmen vote. Is there too much lobbying going on? What happens to democracy when so much money and effort are poured into selling the agendas of special interests to our elected officials?
"Congress has always had, and always will have, lobbyists and lobbying," says former Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd. "We could not adequately consider our workload without them." But he also stresses the need for vigilance. "The history of this institution demonstrates the need for eternal vigilance to ensure that lobbyists do not abuse their role, that lobbying is carried on publicly with full publicity, and that the interests of all citizens are heard without giving special ear to the best organized and most lavishly funded."
To be clear, not all lobbyists represent big business, not all of them are Abramoff-style operator and not all of them toe the line between legality and criminal corruption. In fact, most lobbyists are respectable folks legitimately conveying the interests of organized groups to those whose actions and votes have an effect on the way we live in America. They may represent churches, universities, charities, senior citizens groups or environmental concerns, or they may represent Enron or the Northern Mariana Islands. Basically, a lobbyist's job is to persuade lawmakers to view an issue in their clients' interest and will urge them to vote in a way that benefits their clients, whether that means more federal research contracts for a college in a congressman's district, more affordable drug prescriptions for the elderly or bigger tax loopholes for corporations.
For years, the reality has been that people must organize in order to have their voices heard in politics. From the very early days of Congress, citizens have joined together in order to lobby with greater efficacy: The representatives of shipwrights lobbied lawmakers on the effects of tariffs; merchants' lobbyists pushed for an end to the tax on molasses; federal clerks requested an increase in pay; military officers sought reimbursement for personal funds expended during the Revolution. In short, individuals with common interests banded together and selected someone to plead their case before Congress, the White House or any other body that had the power to influence the situation. And so lobbying became an efficacious and accepted form of political activity. (Read a history from lobbying from the U.S. Senate.)
Bill Moyers talked with Thomas Frank, author of WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS: HOW CONSERVATIVES WON THE HEART OF AMERICA and Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and long-time Washington observer about the particular problems exhibited by the Abramoff scandal, and the general problems that perplex a political and campaign system that runs on money — a great deal of money. Ornstein is particuarly troubled by the "earmarking" process in which representatives can use a legislative manuever, without great oversight, to steer federal appropraitions monies to pet projects...and possibly to campaign contributors. (You can learn more about earmarks in the "Fixing the System" Citizens Class.)
You can find out how much money is being spent to lobby for the things you care about. Take a look here OpenSecrets.org to find out if you are being represented by a lobbyist in Congress. To see how many lobbyists are working in your state legislature, visit Public Integrity. Amazingly, in Washington, there are approximately 65 lobbyists for each member of the House.
By law, all registered lobbyists working on the Hill are required to publicly disclose which issues and bills they have worked on-in recent years, less than half of lobbyists have filed their disclosure forms in a timely manner, if at all. Increased scrutiny by both the public and oversight agencies could help the situation — especially in the age of the Internet. Watchdog groups fault the House for lagging behind the Senate. which maintains a broadly searchable database of electronic images of lobbying forms. [Read the report and find out about additional reform efforts.]
Read the rest of the class notes at: