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I took a year of leave from my teaching at Columbia University to serve as senior adviser to the Carter White House. I got Potomac fever and decided to stay in Washington to be close to politics. In the 25 years that followed, I saw and learned (I believe) a great deal. However, rarely have I witnessed a more extreme example of politics as the theater of the absurd than I see these days. In the wake of the Abramoff scandals, Congress members are falling over each other as they rush to introduce lobbying reforms. Practically all those introduced so far call for trimming the icing on the cake, but leaving the cake untouched-hardly a persuasive way to slim down. To understand the ways lobbyists work in Washington-and what Congress says it will do about limiting their influence and what it is not even considering-one must draw a sharp line between what is essential for Congress members and what are attractive but marginal perks. It is essential for Congress members to be able to raise the millions of dollars re-election campaigns require. True, many Congress members have secure seats; however the size of their campaign chest is one reason their seats are so safe-it helps deters challengers. In short, campaign financing is the cake congressional members must feed on regularly. True, theoretically they could eat bread; they could raise the essential funds by collecting small donations from a large number of individuals. These donations could replace the large sums they now get from lobbyists representing special interests such as real estate, teachers’ unions, banks and Indian casinos. However, those few politicians who have tried to go down this road (which has the virtue of not leaving you obligated to any special interests) found out that it is very time-consuming and costly. Hence, although they delight in getting small donations (especially over the Internet), they rely on lobbyists for the funds essential for staying in office. In comparison, free elegant lunches, seats in skyboxes, all-paid first class trips to Las Vegas, etc., etc., are merely the icing on the cake. Suggested reforms are paltry Now look at the suggested reforms also known as the ethics package: The House has approved a bill that requires lobbyists to name legislators on disclosure forms for gifts costing $5 or more. But no one is laying a glove on the hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbyists provide for campaign financing, nor are there limits on what lobbyists can give to family members. And the Senate has yet to act on this gift limitation. The House voted to bar former members who become lobbyists from the House floor and gym. They are now “limited” to the dining room and to the scores of other places near the Hill where one can have meals and otherwise rub shoulders with legislators. A bill barring members of Congress from benefiting from lobbyist-paid meals and trips ran into opposition. Opponents suggested instead faster and fuller disclosure of such favors. None of these marginal limitations on gifts sailed through Congress so far. Instead they are occasions for arguments back and forth, which make them seem important. Actually, unwittingly or deliberately, these subminimal reforms distract attention from what must be done: greatly limiting the amounts of funds lobbyists can donate to campaign financing. In this department, business continues as usual. Not only do members of Congress continue to receive large amounts of money, they actively solicit funds from the 11,500 lobbyists on K Street and elsewhere. They are not men and women of bad character (most of them), but they have no choice. Without these funds, they are out of a job, not merely short on perks. There are those who say that donations merely buy “access.” However, even if this were true, granting opportunities to lay out their case to representatives of special interests with deep pockets and not to others (after all there are only so many hours per day for such “access”) tilts the political system toward those already most endowed. And the corporations and business associations and labor unions and others who shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars would be very unwise indeed, actually in violation of their fiduciary duties, if they got nothing concrete in return. Only if the media and the voters scoff at the theater of reform and demand getting down to the basics, can we even have a reasonable debate about what must be done about curbing Congress members’ insatiable appetite for campaign contributions and what they are willing to do to keep them coming. Amitai Etzioni, an NLJ columnist, is a professor at George Washington University, and his most recent publication is How Patriotic is the Patriot Act?: Freedom Versus Security in the Age of Terrorism (Routledge 2004).

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