Glimmer of reform comes from unlikely source: Lobbyists
By Laylan Copelin
Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff is facing jail time for stealing millions from his tribal clients to enrich himself and bribe Congress. A California member of Congress, Duke Cunningham, was jailed for accepting bribes to earmark money for government contractors. And former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas fell from U.S. House majority leader to private citizen in Virginia after he was indicted for aggressively directing corporate money from D.C. lobbyists into Texas elections.
Political scandal has consequences. Yet it doesn't necessarily dictate change in how government operates.
"There's always built-in resistance to reform," said Washington lawyer Larry Noble, a former general counsel to the Federal Elections Commission. "Office-holders make a calculation whether the public really cares."
Despite promise of reform, Congress has done little in the wake of the Abramoff and Cunningham convictions except to brace for the next headline.
Individual members of Congress continue to earmark taxpayer dollars for supporters and, last week, two senators blocked legislation to create a searchable database of $2.5 trillion in federal spending; Abramoff's successors can still accompany legislators on fact-finding trips to Scottish golf courses; and DeLay's successor as majority leader, by all accounts, has continued the close ties between K Street lobbyists and the congressional leadership.
In the Texas Legislature, Republican Speaker Tom Craddick last year let die an attempt to clarify when, if ever, corporations could spend their millions to affect the outcome of an election. Craddick's inaction — on a bill with 90 co-sponsors in the 150-member House — came even as the lawyers for his ally, DeLay, were pleading that the law banning corporate campaign contributions is too confusing to be enforced.
On the campaign trail, Gov. Rick Perry and his opponents Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Chris Bell, Kinky Friedman and James Werner almost daily bandy allegations of cronyism fueled by campaign donations. And even some Texas lobbyists are looking to push for change.
Yet University of Texas government professor Bruce Buchanan doesn't forecast a tsunami of voter discontent that will change the system.
"At one level, corruption is a kind of mild to moderate pollution that people think they have to live with," Buchanan said. "They are happy to see the scoundrels thrown out, but the issue has little staying power."
There are many reasons why it's difficult to change politics as usual.
Other issues often push campaign finance and ethics lower on the list of concerns. Although Democrats are pointing fingers at what they call the Republicans' culture of corruption in Congress, the war in Iraq, terrorism and the economy remain the priorities on the campaign trail.
In Texas, the issueover how to pay for public schools has dominated debates for several years.
Also, the public often doesn't make the connection between campaign donations and public policy.
After the implosion of Enron, politicians from the White House to the state house successfully distanced themselves by returning campaign donations from Enron chief Ken Lay — dubbed Kenny Boy by President Bush — and the Enron crowd that had worked for years to get the electrical industry deregulated.
Ironically, it was former California Gov. Gray Davis, viewed as ineffective in managing Enron's manipulation of that state's electrical market, who paid a price for Enron. The supporters of the disgraced company thrived.
"It did no harm to Bush even though he was the biggest beneficiary" of Enron's political support, Buchanan said. "It didn't lay a glove on him."
Texas is no different
Washington is not the only place where monied interests can sway issues.
In Texas, the Legislature created a state agency to deal with complaints against homebuilders, making it difficult for consumers to sue. Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, the state's largest campaign donor, favored the cause. His company's lawyer helped write the legislation, and Gov. Perry (no relation) appointed him to the new state commission.
On the other hand, Perry alleges that Comptroller Strayhorn trades favorable treatment of large taxpayers for campaign contributions.
This fall, voters will be treated to attack ads portraying candidates as the handmaidens of special interests.
"Political opponents can do a good job of making dirt stick to their opponent," said Craig McDonald with Texans for Public Justice, which monitors campaign finance. "But people don't understand the connection between corruption and the issues they care about: schools, taxes and health care."
Needing campaign donations, few candidates make campaign finance a primary issue, McDonald said. And few others mount a well-financed campaign to educate the public. "If we had Coca-Cola's budget," he said, "we could show them why they should care."
Two years ago Rep. Mark Strama of Austin was one of the few candidates to campaign on reform. Yet the Democratic freshman's bills on campaign finance and legislative ethics never made it out of subcommittee.
"I knew it would take time," he said. "The hardest thing to do is to get politicians to take power away from themselves."
Instead of waiting for his colleagues to rewrite the rules they live under, Texans should have the right to put reforms on the ballot, Strama said.
"They are not just frustrated with what's illegal," said Strama, referring to voters. "They are frustrated with what's legal."
Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, said partisanship and free speech rights are hurdles to reform. Invariably, Krusee said, the argument is that limiting money in politics is denying people their free speech rights.
Krusee said he often gets e-mails from constituents upset with their inability to fight politics as usual: "They often feel their First Amendment rights are taken away by a small group of people they don't belong to."
In effect, they are saying free speech is available to the highest bidders.
If a demand for reform doesn't come from the public, it might come from incumbents who feel threatened by wealthy donors, individuals pushing a single issue or corporations flexing their muscle in issue ads.
In last spring's primaries, San Antonio businessman James Leininger poured millions into a handful of legislative races.
Leininger, a perennial campaign donor, mostly to Republicans, took sides in contested party primaries because he's frustrated that lawmakers have not approved a pilot program for publicly financed vouchers as an alternative to public education.
Three lobbyists, who represent clients on different sides of competing issues (and who asked for anonymity to avoid retaliation against their clients), say Leininger inadvertently hurt his cause and might have persuaded some incumbents to consider the idea of capping total contributions from single donors at $100,000 per election cycle. (Critics of contribution limits note that federal restrictions haven't stopped the influence of big donors.)
That push could stem from another unlikely source: lobbyists.
George S. Christian is the general counsel to the Texas Civil Justice League, a group focused on liability and business issues.
A recent survey asked group members to assess which issues to address as part of the legislative agenda, Christian said. Campaign finance reform is one of them.
"Pretty consistently people put the issue first or second," on their list of concerns, Christian said.
He said his group is gauging support for change among lawmakers and other associations. The group is weighing such issues as campaign finance limits, improving laws to disclose the source of contributions and a proposal to make clear the role of corporate money in elections.
In a system tilted to the largest donors, whether individuals, associations or industries, the smaller players are feeling shut out. "I think there's a feeling that the system is tapped into fewer and fewer special interests," Strama said.
"We're testing the waters," Christian said. "I think a serious effort is going to be made on this issue."
However, Christian, knows it's a long way from an idea to a bill on the governor's desk: "You have some pretty large dollars wrapped into a handful of issues."
What the candidates say
Gubernatorial candidates were asked to name one government reform they'd like to see enacted in 2007. Some insisted on two.
- Rick Perry, R: To allow a greater review of state budget items by the governor and to spend money collected from dedicated taxes only on the original purpose.
- Carole Keeton Strayhorn, I: To allow voters to put issues on a statewide ballot.
- Kinky Friedman, I: To allow the public financing of campaigns and voter registration on Election Day.
- Chris Bell, D: To set limits on campaign contributions.
- James Werner, Lib.: To cut state spending 10 percent across-the-board.