Wednesday, January 11, 2006

As John Boehner said when he threw his hat into the House majority leader’s race, “adding more new rules isn’t the answer” to clean up real and perceived egregious behavior now embroiling Congress as a result of the Rep. Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff and Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s disgraceful crimes.

Indeed, instead of adding more rules, how’s this for a good government concept? Simply eliminate the very rules that sprang out of the Watergate-era campaign finance laws or many of the “reforms” following the House Bank and House Post Office scandals.

The concept isn’t as far fetched as it sounds. Consider that it’s one that has served well the residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The model is simplicity itself — there are no restrictions governing political donations or gift giving other than making all of it public.

What a refreshing thought when one stops for a minute to ponder that, so far as memory serves, such a system has not led to any scandals in Virginia. Total transparency between donors and recipients, actual dollar amounts and specific goodies received are all put into the public domain for anyone to see, report and contemplate.

The major political parties have been fighting such rules since the 1974 Federal Campaign Act was signed into law to, basically, maintain some political advantages and loopholes. The sad fact is that, with approval by the Supreme Court, the only losers have been the American people and the First Amendment.

That said, the reality is that the large percentage of lobbyists (like journalists and government workers) are honest, good people. So the Abramoff’s of this world really stink up the joints for all of us.

So it’s rather ironic really when one considers that it’s been under conservative Republican rule in the last few years that produced the McCain-Feingold legislation to supposedly — yet again — clean up campaign finance rules. Anyone remember the much-ballyhooed 527 political action committees?

Like prostitution, politics is as old as human kind. Maybe not much of a difference but the fact remains that each generation has seen its fair share of hookers and money scandals. And though laws are on the books to outlaw prostitution (except in certain locales in Nevada), no one has given serious consideration to outlawing politicians.

Instead, we’ve seen laws passed to protect pols from themselves and, arguably, to protect us from them. The sad fact is that our free speech rights to “speak” via political contributions — whether individually or in groups — have been abridged. Congress and the courts have theorized that losing some of these rights is okay if it’s in the greater interest of the body politic. Something about a camel’s nose in the tent springs to mind.

The result has been a body of laws, regulations and rulings that even experts in campaign finance and ethics law find confusing. So, how about trying something Virginia knows works?

Simply allow any American to givetoanypolitician(or wannabe) as much money as they want. And let anyone buy any politician or senior staff anything of value — including a Rolls Royce or a yacht a la the Cunningham fiasco. Just make it all public within 30 days down to the last penny.

“Oh my God,” I can hear naysayers scream, “you can’t do that! Then the millionaires would buy up every politician and the little people would get suckered!” Really?

Consider the scores of millions spent by the likes of New Jersey Gov. John Corzine for his state’s top job (and previously for the Senate seat), and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s lavish spending — twice. Obviously, people can made up their minds when there’s full public disclosure.

When the Republicans took over Congress in 1994 they promised to clean up the culture of corruption in Washington after 40 years of Democrat power. They promised to apply the laws of the land to themselves. They promised to live by the spirit of ethics, not just the rules. And Democrats joined them gladly after the myriad scandals from the late 1980s into the early 1990s.

The simplicity of the GOP “Contract with America” was its appeal. Republicans gambled that the public would support such common sense rules. They believed in the power of the people. So how about trusting the people yet again? We’re all not as stupid as lawmakers or interest groups make us out to be.

Rep. David Drier, the California Republican who chairs the House Rules Committee, has been tasked by Speaker Dennis Hassert to come up with some lobbying rule changes. How about this David — just scrap all the rules and truly shine the light on all that hidden money giving. Make it all public.

Paul M. Rodriguez, the former managing editor of Insight magazine, is a media and public affairs consultant in Washington.

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