In the past decade, Republicans have taken Congress to new lows of corruption. Democrats may not have been choirboys when they controlled Congress for most of 40 years before the 1994 election, but at least they allowed the money to flow on a bipartisan basis, as long as they got the majority share.
When the GOP took over they decided to shut off the spigots to the Democrats. Grover Norquist, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, came up with the "K Street Project," which made "pay to play" explicit for lobbyists while Democratic lobbyists became persona non grata. The warning went out that lobbying firms that employed Democrats in positions of authority would not get a hearing in the Republican Congress. And the GOP leaders would keep an eye on lobbyists' campaign finance flows.
DeLay, who was then the majority whip, provided the muscle for the project.
In one case, Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services reportedly threatened to go after mutual funds if their trade group, the Investment Company Institute, did not replace its Democratic chief lobbyist, Julie Domenick, who was viewed as insufficiently devoted to Social Security privatization. After the Washington Post reported the threat in 2003, the scandal helped Domenick keep her job, but the House Ethics Committee declined to initiate an investigation and ICI hired a former aide to Newt Gingrich to work with Domenick.
Republicans even created charities and non-profit organizations as a way to launder money from lobbyists and create unaccountable slush funds. [See "To Russia, Love, Tom DeLay," p. 10.]
Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif.,had to quit the House after he admitted taking more than $2 million in bribes in a criminal conspiracy involving at least three defense contractors. Federal prosecutors reportedly are investigating two powerful House chairmen -- Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., of the Armed Services Committee and Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., of the Appropriations Committee. Both men have close connections to military contractor Brent Wilkes -- who is referred to as "co-conspirator No. 1" in Justice department documents -- and who provided more that $630,00 in cash and favors to Cunningham for help in landing millions of dollars in federal contracts.
Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Administration Committee, also reportedly took money and gifts from Abramoff in return for political favors and is in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors.
While DeLay was forced to give up his House leadership position, two of the frontrunners to succeed him as majority leader -- Reps. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., "share a broad network of lobbyist ties with DeLay," according to Bloomberg News.
Democrats plan to unveil an "Honest Leadership Act" that will be the foundation of their ethics agenda for 2006, Roll Call reported Jan. 9. Normally the GOP leadership wouldn't give a Democratic ethics bill a hearing, but as Abramoff and Cunningham continue to cooperate with federal prosecutors in plea deals, and DeLay faces a money-laundering trial in Texas and likely charges in connection with the Abramoff probe, Republicans will be desperate to pass something to wash their hands of the corruption scandals. Democrats should not let them get away without a true reform bill. Common Cause (commoncause.org) has proposed a package that includes:
creation of an Office of Ethics Counsel to investigate ethics infractions;
ban on all gifts and travel paid by lobbyists;
extend the moratorium on Congress members and their staff taking jobs as lobbyists from one to two years;
enact public financing for congressional candidates;
require real-time reporting of lobbying contacts and enforcement of disclosure rules.
With public confidence in Republicans sinking, Democrats should give voters positive reasons to restore them to the majority next fall. Dems should promise to restore congressional oversight over the executive branch. They should promise hearings to determine if the Bush administration lied and/or misused intelligence to promote an unnecessary invasion of Iraq. They should promise hearings to determine the extent of warrantless wiretaps of US citizens, how they were used, and determine whether that executive action, flouting the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, constitutes grounds for impeachment.
Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to regain control of the House and six seats to regain the Senate majority. Gerrymandering in the House and the powers of incumbency in the Senate make such a turnover extremely unlikely. To pull such an upset, Democrats need to regain the solid support of working people. They can do that by promising that the first orders of business under a Democratic Congress next year would be to expand Medicare to cover everybody and to increase the minimum wage to a level at which a full-time job would raise a family out of poverty.
Matt Stoller of MyDD.com notes that universal health care is not only good policy, but also is good politics for Democrats. "There are a lot of reasons to work for universal health care. There's the moral -- health care is essential for a democratic society. There's the economic -- universal health care is cheaper than what we have now. And there's the political. First of all, it hurts the right, badly. Two huge funding sources for Republicans are doctors and insurance companies, which are basically massively inefficient companies designed to deny you care. In addition, being able to deny Americans the ability to change jobs is key to promoting the economic instability that allows fear-based politics to flourish. And then there's the union piece [as public and private employers cut back on health care coverage] ..."
If Republicans can run against Big Government, Democrats should run against Big Insurance Companies. And if the US can commit more than a trillion dollars to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, we can commit to spend what is necessary to provide quality health care for every American.
Expansion of Medicare to cover every American would help workers and their families, it would help small businesses who can't afford health insurance for their employees and level the playing field with stingy corporations such as Wal-Mart, it would help state and local governments that are wrestling with ways to pay for health care for the uninsured, and it would hurt major Republican funders. What's not to like?
And if the Republican president and Congress won't get off the dime, unions and small-business groups should take the initiative in getting Democrats at the state level to promote universal health coverage. Health care could be financed by a modest payroll tax that in most cases would cost less than what responsible businesses now pay to insure their employees. Progressive states would have an advantage in economic development.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has started what is expected to be a weeklong encounter with Samuel Alito in which the right-wing judge appears to back off some of the most extreme positions he has taken as a Reagan administration lawyer and appeals court judge without precluding a return to those views if he gets onto the Supreme Court. Although most of the attention has been paid to his prejudice against abortion rights, Alito also could swing the Supreme Court to the right on issues such as affirmative action; the role of money and corporations in politics; voting rights; family and medical leave; civil liberties; labor and consumer regulations; and presidential powers. Democrats should be prepared to filibuster Alito's nomination and call Bill Frist's bluff on the threatened "nuclear option" of doing away with judicial filibusters. -- JMC