Now is the Time to Tackle Corruption in Government

by Joel Barkin Originally published by the New Hampshire Union Leader on May 11, 2006:
AMERICA has a problem. Newspapers report a half dozen members of Congress may go to jail for their dealings with Jack Abramoff. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of lobbyists in Washington doubled to nearly 35,000 — almost 70 lobbyists for every member of Congress. George Ryan, the former governor of Illinois, is headed to prison on multiple corruption charges. The people we elect to represent us are too often open to bribery. What is the cost? With Jack Abramoff, the cost was millions steered inappropriately to Casino Jack’s clients and favorable legal loopholes for outsourcing companies that worked Abramoff. In Illinois, a truck driver got his license through bribery had a collision that cost six children their lives. And these costs are just the surface. The bigger costs come from elected representatives distracted from the people’s priorities and bureaucrats creating two-tiered systems of treatment — one for the wealthy and corrupt, one for the rest of us. The time has come for change. Unsurprisingly, Washington, D.C., where the corruption runs the deepest, is seeing little momentum for real reforms. Those are coming from the states. Recently, New Hampshire moved to the forefront of the substantive reform debate when Gov. John Lynch pushed for and signed legislation creating an independent ethics commission overseeing the executive branch. Gov. Lynch had already cracked down on his own office — placing his assets in a blind trust and requiring his staff to file financial disclosures. But the bipartisan legislation doesn’t stop with the executive branch. New Hampshire’s legislators and governor went further and required further disclosure by lobbyists, imposed stricter gift rules, and made it clear that public officials are prohibited from using their public trust to advance their own private good. These are basic measures, but getting elected officials to crack down on their own is unsurprisingly difficult. Fortunately, an entire class of bipartisan reforms are bubbling up from states like New Hampshire. Maine, Arizona and Connecticut have led the way with public financing of campaigns, an option that allows candidates to run without feeling pressure to take big money from special interests. Ask the legislators in these states who increasingly got elected as “clean” candidates and they will tell you how much freer they feel. New Hampshire and other states have tackled new rules to prevent conflicts-of-interest and temper lobbyist influence. Florida imposed a complete ban on gifts to lawmakers. A bill is now moving forward to prohibit officeholders and candidates from soliciting contributions for committees than can take unlimited contributions — often from the same lobbyists and industries that are now banned from giving gifts. In Montana, Gov. Brian Schweitzer is leading an effort to gather signatures to qualify a ballot initiative that would impede the revolving door of public officials turning their government experience into lobbying profits. These ideas and more are only a handful of examples of what courageous legislators, governors and citizens are demanding all over America — change in the statehouse at in the voting booth. States have a real opportunity to take the lead on reform, set an example, create new ideas and hone a farm team of officials more interested in public service than catering to special interest lobbies. Tomorrow, legislators from across New England will meet with citizens and non-profit advocates in Concord to discuss the best ideas for cleaning up state governments. Already, people from all over the Northeast (and even a few from across the country) have registered for this event that is open to the public. The conference is being co-sponsored by the Progressive States Network, Public Campaign, Common Cause, the Center for American Progress, Americans for Campaign Reform, MoveOn Civic Action, NH PIRG, New Hampshire Citizens Alliance, and Democracy for New Hampshire. One hundred years ago, America’s progressive movement launched by reformers like Theodore Roosevelt introduced new guidelines and new institutions to counteract powerful forces of corruption. The reformers succeeded because then, as now, the public was fed up with elected officials who catered only to the powerful. Today, reformers have an opportunity — an opportunity precipitated by the very corruption we seek to correct. With leaders like Gov. Lynch, we will realize this opportunity. And, together, we will leave America’s governments more honest and more responsive to the people they exist to serve. Joel Barkin is executive director of the Progressive States Network.