Thursday, January 19, 2006

Nobody Wants to Talk About the Elephant in the Room

This week has been a big one for lobby reform, with Congressional Republicans releasing their draft plans for lobbying reform and the Democrats following suit yesterday. Notably absent from all these proposals is any mention of public financing of elections, or, frankly, any mention of campaign finance reform at all. It's as if nobody wants to talk about the proverbial elephant in the room. Instead the list of lobbying reforms includes things like prohibiting travel paid by outside groups, tigheteing the gift ban, extending the prohibition on lobbying for former lawmakers and aides to two years, etc., etc. Worthy goals all, although there is a big fat loophole in all the variants of the travel prohibitions, as Jeffrey Birbaum wrote in yesterday's Washington Post:

According to lobbyists and ethics experts, even if Hastert's proposal is enacted, members of Congress and their staffs could still travel the world on an interest group's expense and eat steak on a lobbyist's account at the priciest restaurants in Washington.

The only requirement would be that whenever a lobbyist pays the bill, he or she must also hand the lawmaker a campaign contribution. Then the transaction would be perfectly okay.

Hmmph. Birnbaum, in his wisdom, also points out the same glaring omission we do:

A third major area -- campaign finance laws -- would go untouched, an omission that amounts to a gaping loophole in efforts to distance lobbyists from the people they are paid to influence.

Another pundit clued into the myopia of the reform solutions being put forth is the New Republic's John Judis. In a piece titled, "Why Lobbying Reform Won't Work,"he writes:

Some of these [lobbying] measures certainly have merit, but, by themselves, they aren't going to prevent the kinds of problems that have engulfed Congress over the last 40 years. That's because the excesses of Abramoff and DeLay--like those of the Nixon administration in the early 1970s and House Democrats in the early 1990s--are an outgrowth of a flawed system of campaign finance.

and

The clean-money approach would fund primary candidates who meet a threshold by raising local contributions and would then fund the general-election candidates. Candidates accepting public funds in the general election could not accept private funds, but if an opponent relying on private funds threatens to outspend them, they can receive additional matching funds. They can also receive matching funds if they are targeted by issue ads from an outside group.

Hear, hear, Judis! He keeps going...(comments in brackets)
Publicly financed campaigns are, of course, a hard sell. They were adopted in Arizona and Connecticut in the wake of major scandals. [Excuse me, Mr. Judis, but surely the DeLay-Abramoff scandals are also major scandals?] And voters in Missouri and Oregon have voted down public financing proposals. [Although the Portland, Oregon City Council recently approved what it calls Voter Owned Elections.] But there isn't really another kind of reform that promises to break the connection between money and politics that has given us the K Street Project, Abramoff, and DeLay. Anyone who thinks that passing a gift or travel ban will do the trick is simply deluding himself. [Thank you, thank you, thank you!]

And if you want to read still more on the topic, check out the statement of Nick Nyhart's Public Campaign executive director here.

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