DISPATCHES by Hank Kalet: A conspiracy so immense

"Clean elections" could disinfect political campaigns, which are the breeding grounds of corruption.

By: Hank Kalet
   The body politic is infected.
   Washington under the current regime has been contaminated by a culture of corruption, one in which power and money mix in an awful brew that distorts the political process. Members of Congress get money for their campaigns and free trips and a whole lot of other great stuff. And the lobbyists and contributors get access, legislation and favorable appointments and the American public gets — well, we don’t get anything.
   The anatomy of the most recent pay-to-play scandal in Washington reads like a road map of everything that’s wrong in Washington — and everything that’s wrong with American politics on both sides of the aisle in the first decade of the 21st century.
   The basic narrative goes like this: Lobbyist Jack Abramoff uses his longtime ties to the Republican leadership, his clients’ cash and an array of favors and perks to win favorable treatment from Congress. In the words of the Washington Post, which ran an extensive report at the end of December on Mr. Abramoff’s rise and sudden fall, the lobbyist "showered" lawmakers and their wives with "trips, sports and concert tickets, drinks and dinners," an effort that helped kill Internet gambling legislation and win access to a host of congressmen and their staffers.
   According to the Post and other news reports, targets of federal investigators include former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who has relinquished his post as House majority leader; Rep. Robert W. Ney, R-Ohio; Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.; and Rep. John T. Doolittle, R-Calif., though the net could ultimately snare a much larger number, especially when you consider that more than a dozen legislators already have returned campaign contributions from Mr. Abramoff and his clients.
   It would be easy to view Mr. Abramoff and his associates as bad apples — he pleaded guilty earlier this month to three counts of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. It also would be easy to point to the various indictments and Mr. Abramoff’s plea as examples that the system works.
   It would be easy, but it would be wrong and it would leave the infection in place to fester and continue growing. The infection, of course, is money. Money is the way campaign contributions are used to curry favor and win access, to garner local, state and federal contracts.
   The disease in this case is money. Money infects our political system, giving those with cash a louder voice in the process — something the general public understands far better than America’s political elite.
   Polls consistently show that the public believes that campaign contributions affect the kind of legislation that gets passed everywhere from town hall to Trenton to Washington. And while it can be difficult to pin down actual connections between campaign and lobbying money and the legislation that gets passed, there is enough anecdotal and circumstantial evidence to raise dozens of red flags.
   But rather than attack the problems head on by taking the money out of the system, we continue to tweak the system at its edges, hoping that bans on soft money, rules governing government contracting and lobbying activities will get the job done.
   The reality is, however, that as long as we require large sums of privately raised cash to pay for our political campaigns there will be questions regarding what that cash buys.
   The question is how to do this. The best way, I think, is to publicly finance our elections using the "clean elections" model in place in states like Maine and Arizona. Under "clean elections" rules, candidates are required to meet both ballot access requirements and raise a minimum amount of money in small increments (usually $5) from registered voters in their town, election district or state to qualify. They also must agree to abide by campaign spending limits. Candidates who qualify would receive a set amount of campaign money from a clean money fund for both the primary and the general elections.
   New Jersey experimented with "clean elections" in two legislative districts in 2005, without much success, but I think the problems that plagued those trials had more to do with the thresholds being set too high and not with the idea of "clean elections" themselves. The success of the program in Maine, for instance, along with a major state-level scandal, helped convince the Connecticut lawmakers to approve a similar plan.
   A "clean elections" system, when constructed properly, stems the huge influx of corporate cash into politics (generally funneled through trade groups) and opens the system to candidates who might not otherwise be seen as viable for fundraising reasons.
   Think of "clean elections" as a powerful antibiotic designed to cleanse the system of a particularly virulent infection.
Hank Kalet is managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. His e-mail is hkalet@pacpub.com.