Wednesday, January 4

Abramoff Opens The Door

Jack Abramoff has opened the door for the US Government to rid us entirely of professional lobbying. That will change forever the way Congress does business and it will give the power of government back to the American people.

Go, Feds! They caught lobbyist Jack Abramoff and got him to squeal. (Assuming, of course, that he lives long enough to fulfull his promise to name names in Washington. People have died in D.C. for much less.)

However, the most important thing in this situation -- more important than the possibility of scandals involving Harry Reid, an aide of Tom Delay's and more -- is the fact that a result of this spotlight on Washington will be to alert the American people to how much lobbyists have stolen our right to have our voices heard on The Hill. Let's make lobbying by large groups illegal. Give the power back to the people. Force members of Congress to listen to the individual voices of their constituents.

Our constitutional right to "petition government for a redress of grievances" has evolved into a $3 billion-a-year industry. People like Abramson and groups like the AARP (American Association of Retired People)have discovered over the years that lobbying makes a huge difference. The voice of the individual has no power. The boardroom decides what's best for the people and spend massive sums of money to work their will.

Expenditures on health-care lobbying last year rose to $325 million, as health-care providers, insurers, drug makers, medical professionals and others lobby to make sure their interests are served (not their patients') when Congress considers their issues. Specialized lobbyists help shape tax bills so that they pay less, thus placing the burden of those tax bills on the consumer. That's why you can be denied needed treatment by your insurance company. People have died because of that.

And look who these lobbyists are: Remember Tom Dashle? His wife, Linda, was a lobbyist while he served in Congress. Sen. Dick Durbin's wife Loretta started a lobbying firm representing clients before local and state government. Four years later, Durbin used his influence on the Senate Appropriations Committee to approve a $150,000 grant for the American Lung Association of Illinois, one of his wife's clients. You can be sure that wasn't a volunteer effort on Loretta's part.

Lobbyists don't have to work for lobbying firms to affect legislation, either. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's wife, Michelle, is a vice president at the University of Chicago Hospitals. Kathy LaHood, wife of GOP Rep. Ray LaHood, is a business manager for Goodwill Industries in Peoria. Pillow talk is probably the most effective lobbying technique yet devised. And do you think for a moment that Mrs. Obama's main concern is for patient's rights over the bottom line profits of that hospital?

One good thing about this Abramoff thing -- it is most definitely a bi-partisan issue. No one party will emerge unscathed in this one. In fact, the cancer is so ingrained that probably very few members of Congress are untouched. That very fact may be the thing that eases the effect of the scandal. If everyone is guilty, they'll say, there is no crime.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez is the senior Democrat on the House Financial Services' Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee. His wife, Solaida, has worked in the banking field for years and recently registered as an Illinois lobbyist for Popular Securities Inc., listing several state agencies as potential clients for the company's underwriting services. This has been overlooked because he serves on the Federal level, while she lobbies at the state level (supposedly). Questionable ethics at best.

The argument, of course, for allowing spouses to be lobbyists is that it's unfair to ask a spouse to give up a career because the other is in politics. There's a solution for that: it can be solved by imposing term limits. If she goes to Congress, he can do something other than lobbying until her term is up. No Senator or Congressman should serve more than two terms.

Sen. Feingold has, in the past, offered watered-down versions of limitations on lobbying but even her bill didn't get to the heart of the issue.

The fact is, professional lobbying should simply be banned. Issues should rise or fall according to grass routes support. That's the only way we will ever have true government "by the people." It is the individual whose voice should be heard in Congress, not the Fat Cats who can afford to send legislators on trips all over the world.

Congress should have to work for a living without the extravagant perks they've enjoyed from lobbyists. That might bring us an even larger benefit: people who care about government "by the people" might run for office.

Another benefit to banning lobbyists might just be a shift in the balance of power. Lobbyists have, necessarily, been able to affect who has the most power in Congress simply by providing certain selected congressmen and senators more resources for favors to give out. We have known this has been going on for years but until now there's been no way to get at them.

So here it is. The chance to get rid of the lobbyists and return the power to the people. Jack Abramoff, if you live, you may have restored government "of, for and by the people."

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