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In 1980,the former head of the FBI, William H. Webster, invited me for lunch at the FBI headquarters after I wrote an op-ed supporting an FBI sting that ensnared several members of Congress (the scandal known as Abscam). During lunch, I mentioned that I was researching the corruptive effects of the ways election campaigns are financed in the United States (later published in a book titled Capital Corruption). An assistant to Webster explained that it is completely legal for a lobbyist to approach a member of Congress before a vote on a bill that would rain many millions on a special interest group that the lobbyist represents. A lobbyist is also free to state that his or her group is “inclined” to contribute to the Congress member’s campaign chest (after the vote)-and deliver the check only after the group is well served. It would be illegal only if the lobbyist would explicitly demand a quid pro quo. This is a legal difference without a distinction; even an obtuse politician gets the point of promises to pay on delivery of the demanded favors, without explicitly signing off on such a deal. Jack Abramoff seems merely more brazen, more arrogant and less cautious than many hundreds of other lobbyists. Indeed, these days Congress members often call up lobbyists to solicit funds before key votes. As they privately tell you, “it is like a whorehouse.” Maybe more like streetwalkers who proposition the clients, rather than wait for them to come calling. Discussions during the Renaissance Weekend (an annual retreat that features the Clintons) are off the record. Hence I cannot name the Congress member, but I can report what he said when I asked “Could one find 50, maybe a hundred, more members of Congress like Tom DeLay, down the hall?” He correctly responded that the issue is not a matter of individual propriety, but the way the system is designed. The problem is systemic This is the heart of the matter. Our public dialogue tends to focus on personalities, and we leave system analysis to think tanks and academicians, a subject that the media consider abstract and boring. And, after all, it is comforting to presume that we merely need to remove a few rotten apples, rather than redesign the barrel. There are some fundamental flaws in our political system-and yet, incredibly, those who are corrupted by it are expected to reform it! The fact is that it is impossible to be elected to Congress, in numerous districts, without raising large amounts of money for consulting, polling and television ads. Soliciting small amounts from individuals (to avoid being indebted to special interests) does not raise enough money and absorbs much of the candidate’s time, which he or she would otherwise dedicate to campaigning. In short, we need a system change; dumping on any one lobbyist or member of Congress will not get us there and is plain unfair. Radical reform is required Soon we will hear much about campaign finance reforms. We have heard this tune often before, only for the monies to find new ways to flood elected officials. What must be attempted is radical reform: to ban the use of private funds in elections and to allot everyone who runs (after they have garnered at least a given number of signatures to show that they are bona fide candidates) some public funds. For those who claim that private monies cannot be dammed, here is the way it does work in the United Kingdom: A modest amount of public money is given to each candidate. If his or her election expenditures exceed the allowed amount, the campaign manager will be sentenced to one year in jail and the elected official will not be seated. Each candidate also gains an appearance on television for a substantial amount of time, which discourages inane sound bites. Also, party discipline greatly reduces the opportunities to cut deals with individual legislators, as on most issues they will have to vote along the party line. Given the American distaste for publicly financed election campaigns, major educational efforts must be undertaken before anything similar can be adopted in the United States. But the British system points in the direction we should be moving. Only after such a radical reform would it be fair to go after an Abramoff, because then such lobbyists would be the true criminals, rather than the ones who happened to be caught with their hands in the cookie jar, just because they reached deeper than many others. Amitai Etzioni, an NLJ columnist, is a professor at The George Washington University and is the author of many books, including Capital Corruption (Harcourt 1984).

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