The indictment and arraignment two weeks ago of Republican Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska) are yet more signs that Congress should move next year to decisively clean up its own house, rather than continuing to allow big business to furnish its house for it. Record lows in Congress approval rating indicate that the public is weary of the pay-to-play culture on Capitol Hill. Sorely needed campaign finance changes are the next frontier now that new ethics laws are being implemented.
A major new effort to push power into the hands of voters rather than wealthy corporate special interests, such as voluntary public funding of elections, would restore confidence even if it arrives too late to salvage the career of one of the longest-serving Senators. It would take critical advantage of the momentum from increased voter engagement in the presidential race and the excitement it has generated from small donors. Congressional races are far behind when it comes to small donors, and it would be a shame if the energy now on display was relegated to the status of a political phenomenon, rather than becoming the new and permanent reality of politics.
Congress should act quickly next spring to ensure that the organizing successes of this years election will not be a fast-fading flash in the pan by passing the Fair Elections Now Act, a bipartisan bill offered by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to create a voluntary system of public funding for Congressional elections. The model offered by their bill can and should be adapted to include new measures that honor and reward small donors, increasing their impact and value to campaigns, while maintaining a structure that puts voters first again in our democracy.
Lawmakers should have a meaningful choice so that the funds they collect for campaigns are not from the same corporate interests that will, inevitably, ask them for favors. For every criminal case that makes headlines for its temerity and arrogance, there are a thousand wink-wink, nudge-nudge handshakes with campaign contributors that shape the policies Congress considers. That is the open secret everyone knows about the way business is done in Washington.
Following on the heels of the Jack Abramoff and bribery scandals in the previous Congress, the scandals in Alaska offer up once again the old lesson that power corrupts, and that even the venerable Senate is not immune to schemes that trade access for favors. The 28-page indictment charges Stevens with seven felony counts of failing to properly disclose $250,000 worth of gifts from VECO Corp., an oil field services company.
The gifts included a gas grill and furniture as well as an extensive renovation of his Alaska home. The truly shocking aspect of the depressing spectacle is that a 50-year career is ending in shame over the apparent desire for new wood flooring. Whats often most embarrassing in these revelatory moments is not that politicians are corrupt, but that the purchase of our democracy comes so cheap.
This is the latest scandal in what has shaped up to be an extensive and highly public investigation of VECOs relationship with several Alaskan legislators, including the Senators son, Ben Stevens, who was Majority Leader of the Alaska Senate for the 2003-2004 term and was president of the state Senate for the 2005-2006 term. Five other state lawmakers are either charged and awaiting trial or have been convicted of offenses such as bribery, attempted extortion, conspiracy and mail fraud.
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