Considering all the bad front-page coverage Conrad Burns has gotten over his ties to infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff, you’d think someone might have raised a titter of caution over planning a Burns fundraiser at the office of a D.C. lobbying firm. But no, not until it showed up in the Montana press did Burns’ team figure out they had once again stepped in it right up to their knees and change the arrangements. What Montanans are finally getting a good look at is the disgusting money-go-round that passes for governance in our nation’s capital these days. The question is: How do we end it?
It would be one thing if Burns was somehow the odd man out in all this, a singular villain who sells himself and his Senate vote to the highest bidder. But that is simply not the case. Despite the current ruckus over the buying and selling of influence in D.C., Max Baucus, Montana’s other U.S. senator, is still planning to hold a February fundraiser in a lobbying firm’s high-end skybox at a Bon Jovi concert.
What this should tell Montanans—who, after all, are a very comfortable 1,500 miles away from D.C.’s pit of corruption—is that these hand-in-glove relationships between policy makers and lobbying firms are simply viewed, even in the face of boiling controversy, as simply business as usual.
The obvious disinclination to change such practices—or even to see them as suspicious—raises the troubling question of whether all the current talk about “lobbying reform” is just that: hollow talk with no chance whatsoever of reforming anything, let alone deeply ingrained practices whereby millions of campaign donation dollars bring billions in paybacks every single day of the year.
Having been a registered lobbyist in Montana for more than two decades, it’s fair to say I’ve had my own closeup look at how money and politics interact at our level. But never having lobbied at the federal level, I, like most Montanans, find the big payoffs for the big contributions more than a little troubling.
Here in Montana most of the lobbying doesn’t concern big money contributions in return for billions in government contracts or other political paybacks. There are two primary reasons for this. First, while Montana is a huge state geographically, it’s more like a small town in regard to who knows what. Huge campaign contributions and/or huge political paybacks would stick out like a sore thumb. Second, our Constitution requires a balanced budget. This is considerably different from the D.C. money-go-round, where “goodies,” in the form of earmarked federal spending, can be dispensed according to favor, with no concern about prioritizing limited dollars to the greatest needs.
Since there is no requirement to balance the federal budget, earmarked overspending to reward political contributors is not only allowed, it has gone hog-wild, actually doubling during the one-party rule of Bush and his Republican Congress. The national deficit has likewise spiraled out of control, illuminating the false promises of fiscal conservatism on which so many of these Republicans got elected and, despite the undeniable evidence to the contrary, will promise once again in their reelection campaigns.
So what can we do to try and save future generations from the accumulated debt they will face thanks to a Congress and presidency run amok in corruption, greed and scandal? Well, that’s where it gets tough.
As national Republican leaders desperately try to shed their connections to political corruption, the currently favored method of “cleaning up D.C.” is to blame someone else for the problem—in this case, the lobbyists. But blaming lobbyists for putting money in the outstretched palms of a corrupted Congress won’t get the job done. You can ban the golf trips, cruises, dinners, country-club meetings and all-expenses-paid junkets, but you can’t ban political contributions from those seeking to reap reward from their hefty investments in politicians—and make no mistake, investments are exactly what they are, a definite input for an expected output.
How about if we put the blame where it belongs instead? Since all the members of Congress are full-grown adults, shouldn’t we hold them accountable for their actions in the political arena just as we would hold them accountable for their actions in the social arena? After all, since they’re the ones taking the money, shouldn’t they, not the lobbyists, be held accountable? Before any truly meaningful reform can be enacted, Congress will first need to take a long look in the mirror—and then clean up the act of the culprit they see looking back.
Is it impossible? Well, no, it isn’t. Just look at what happened here in Montana. Gov. Schweitzer simply refused to take money from political action groups (PACs) and still managed to raise considerable sums and win the election. There was no law requiring him to turn those dollars away, he did it because he knows there’s an unspoken quid pro quo—when you take the money, it comes with an expectation of future cooperation. Nor was he alone. Bob Raney, among others, took no PAC money in his race for the Public Service Commission and he won. Whitefish Rep. Mike Jopek did likewise and he won.
Given our century of brutal domination by corporate raiders, Montanans don’t much take to our politicians being bought and sold anymore. If Washington’s corruption-drenched pols really want “reform,” perhaps they should look to the examples we have set. That, however, would require the D.C. politicos to take responsibility for their own ethical behavior instead of simply trying to find someone else to blame. Until they do, however, it’s unlikely that we will ever see the end to the money-go-round that rules D.C.—and that continues to pollute our politics and drag our nation down.
When not lobbying the Montana Legisla–ture, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.