Fixing Congress: Oil Companies Out, Voters In

Posted August 7, 2008 at 3:55pm

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 year’s 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. What’s 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 VECO’s relationship with several Alaskan legislators, including the Senator’s 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.

In Alaska, it appears that voters may have already decided that enough is enough. Alaskans for Clean Elections, which was formed in response to corruption scandals, is pushing for consideration of a Clean Elections Initiative on the primary ballot this month.

This initiative is modeled after a public financing system that is already working in Arizona and Maine and is under way for the next election in Connecticut. Candidates who choose to run with public funding first gather a preset number of signatures and $5 contributions. If they qualify, they will receive funds to field a viable campaign in the primary and general elections. Public funding makes campaigns accountable to voters first and allows politicians to avoid the time-consuming courting of large corporate donors. Because no one is immune from temptation, public funding offers a democratic solution that puts voters back in charge.

The Alaskan Clean Elections Initiative would also strengthen public confidence in government. The initiative was first submitted for approval to Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell in the summer of 2007. After more than 33,500 signatures were gathered and submitted, the initiative was certified on March 11 for the Aug. 26 primary ballot.

Passing the Clean Elections Initiative is an important step in rooting out the corruption that currently plagues Alaska and would be a major step forward. Our Congress should follow the lead of Alaska’s state organizers and make establishing a voluntary system of public funding for Congressional elections its next big home-improvement project.

Laura MacCleery is deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Jafreen Uddin is executive assistant to the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center.