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Must Capture Moose and Squirrel

Jan
9
2006

It might be cavalier to think of “super lobbyist” Jack Abramoff as a cartoon character but, well, when it comes to money and politics – and the hue and cry that regularly rises up from Washington over the combination – it’s hard not to think in terms of big noises, spit-takes and all’s well ending well where everyone bounces back to normal at the end.
Rep. Tom Delay’s not going to be majority leader again but, well, that’s not a surprise. Rabid Democrats might see a big comic-book “Kapow” superimposed over Delay’s head but so what? The Hammer’s gonna get nailed. He’s off to jail.
It’s true, as the Republicans like to claim, that neither Abramoff or Delay were doing anything differently from the way things have always been done in Washington. But it’s also true that they put the pedal to the metal and pushed the law and the loopholes in the law as far as they would go. They organized and made formal casual tit-for-tat practices that have made up the social and professional give and take of Washington for years. That’s when they broke the law.
Bribing lawmakers may have periods of social acceptance – the “everybody’s doing it” mentality – but it’s never been legal; using charities to fund your lifestyle is also flatly against the law, and billing people for work you don’t do is still fraud. Getting your spouse on the payroll to do nothing is also a form of fraud. When powerful people do these things it’s often hard to catch them, which is what many of them – and Jack Abramoff and Tom Delay are two examples – count on.
But does it necessarily follow that what’s now needed are more rules? After years writing about politics, I am growing weary of rules that do nothing but create loopholes that make it harder – not easier – to find out where the money is going. I am tired of politicians proving their moral character by making flimsy self-policed rules that everyone knows the best ways to circumvent the day they’re enacted. I want more money in politics. I want it there front and center for all to see. Why? Because I want total, complete, universal, bi-partisan cynicism when it comes to how money influences lawmakers and I want everyone to feel that way all the time.
But I also want full and immediate iron-clad disclosure. I want it on the ‘net and I want it now. I figure cynicism and disclosure – which happen to make really good, embarrassing stories about people being for sale – are a whole lot more powerful than rulemaking and political grandstanding. They’re a lot more entertaining, too.
If you’re a political campaign, public advocacy group (aka a lobbyist) or non-profit and you put $1.00 in the bank – regardless of who or where it’s from – you should tell folks you got the money as soon as you get it. When you spend that $1.00 you should tell folks where it’s going. Again, no exceptions.


The IRS already makes charities disclose their income and has rules about when a charity is working for good or serving as someone’s personal piggybank. The Federal Elections Commission keeps track of campaigns and some political advocacy groups and has rules on who should disclose and when they should do so. And fraud – billing clients for work you didn’t do – is fraud, regardless of whether it’s committed in Washington or Tulsa. In other words, the basic infrastructure to keep track of this stuff – and sort out the bad guys from the good guys – is in place. But a lot of it needs to be adapted to the lighting quick communication of the day; disclosure needs to jump on the net with both feet.
Why is this so difficult? Because no one really wants it. Political advocacy groups would happily prefer to work in the shadows, of course. The bloggers dispute at the FEC is a good demonstration of this: while it may look like on-line free speech, the pressure to give everyone writing on-line – where effective political advocacy, like advertising, is headed – a free pass on how they’re funded and what they say will nurture a lot of less-than-honorable practices. We’ll see this in the coming election; Blogging for Bucks is looking to be a good big, juicy 2006/2008 scandal for both sides of the aisle.
Fear of this sort of activity is one reason why the reform community doesn’t really believe disclosure works. They don’t believe in the police power of the crowd; it scares them. They believe wealthier organizations can influence public discourse and dominate the discussion and will do so until the end of time. That’s been true in the past when access to information was more filtered and more controlled. But I am not so sure it will work in the future. That’s not just because of the Internet and the explosion of politics on-line or because I believe in the wisdom of crowds. It’s because there’s money and smart fund-raising on both sides. And dirty tricks, too. And everyone knows it.
The last election cycle – which pitted billionaire Democrats against wealthy Republicans – demonstrated that the ability to raise money quickly and effectively isn’t limited to one party. The Internet has dramatically changed political fundraising; it’s leveled the field. People who care about politics are voting – early and often – with contributions and that’s happening in both parties. So it’s hard to say – as the Liberal Reform community has long done – that the ability to spend and raise money tilts the field as dramatically as it once did.
What’s really disturbing about all the campaign finance and lobbying reform talk isn’t just the press for more rules. It’s the somewhat elitist nature that creeps in to the conversation. The reform community wants to protect voters; it wants the dumbest idiot out there to know, for instance that the Swift Boat veterans were funded by wealthy Republicans. Reformers believe that particular information will create a skeptical voter who will see the light and understand that the Swift Boat cause is necessarily unjust. The fact that Democrats ignored the Swift Boat vets until it was too late gets conveniently brushed aside in the march to make everyone believe reform is necessary.
That argument also assumes that the unjustness of the cause – which could just as easily be the tobacco lobby’s insistence that smoking doesn’t cause cancer, the oil, gas and coal industries’ insistence that global warming isn’t based on “good” science or CBS insistence that its information was correct even though its documents were forged – affects voters’ judgment about larger issues: They’ll keep smoking, they won’t support meaningful environmental reform and they’ll stop trusting the press. I’m pretty sure that’s hasn’t happened in any of the instances listed here. It took me a while but I quit smoking ’cause I figured it would kill me, the Prius hybrid is such a hot car you can’t get one and yeah, even before the Sago mine deaths, I had no faith in TV reporting.
We’ve had a lot of demonstrations this year about the ingrown culture that is Washington, D.C. The Judith Miller follies, the press’ and Congressional Democrats unwillingness or inability (kinda the same thing) to stand back and look at the ways that the Bush administration packed unglamorous bureaucracies (FEMA, Bureau of Mines) with incompetents are just two highlights. The Abramoff scandal looks to be another case of a real and serious problem buried in rules, regulations and double-talk that no one really expects to have any weight or consequence.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 9:46 AM | Permalink

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