By Arthur H. Gunther III
It seems undue influence can be both legal and illegal in these our “democratic” United States. It depends on whether you offer cash, gifts and sweet deals to one who writes and passes laws or are a registered lobbyist who is well paid to get some legislator’s ear in efforts that go beyond free speech.
In New York State, where last week politicoes, including a state senator, assemblyman and $125,000-a-year mayor of a village 70 percent in poverty were arrested on bribery charges, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney, declared, “How many other pending bills were born of bribery? How many passed bills were born of bribery?” In those cases, which include allegations of trying to buy influence in the New York City mayoral election, a wired informant with ties to serious wrongdoing spilled the beans and may have saved himself some jail time.
Meanwhile in just about every state capital, there are registered lobbyists, many of which employ former legislator staffers close to key chair people. Sometimes these lobbyists practically write the language for various laws. The people, the ordinary people in this our “democratic” society, cannot hope to wield such influence.
In Washington, on the famous (infamous?) K Street, lavish buildings, one after another, are the homes of firms that run a continuous lobby pipeline to Capitol Hill.
Yesterday, the New York Times reported in its second front-page lead story that 28 former aides to Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, are registered as lobbyists. This as Congress readies a rewrite of the tax code.
Clearly it is illegal to offer cash or other payment to influence legislation or government decision in favor of one person, persons or companies. Why is it not illegal to hire and employ former government staffers in the know, who are close to their ex-employers, to twist arms on legislation and decisions?
If Prett Bahara can ask, “How many passed bills were born of bribery,” cannot the average citizen wonder how many laws are written by special-interest directive? Isn’t legalized influence in Washington and in every state capital every bit as devastating to democracy and to the economy as is illegal bribe-seeking?
This is not a matter of free speech, as the latest Supreme Court decision on hidden-money campaign financing declared. There is no level playing field when big lobby funds are pitted against the plaintive cry of the citizen. The free speech quotient could be addressed by full, open, impartial public hearing.
We the People of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled not in one place but existing as free humanity in every state of the great union, should solemnly publish and declare, that we are, and of right ought to be free and independent of all special interests, that such lobbies have no right to demand that we be chained to thirst for bottom-line greed, that we give up our pursuit of happiness, that we forego any reasonable and secure future for our young, that we abandon the glue of the nation, that is, its middle class.
We should therefore declare that We the People must soon require that all elections, from state office to Washington, be publicly funded, with no special-interest money allowed as influence of any sort. Nor should any ex-government official or staffer take a lobbyist position or a job with a government contractor for a period of at least 10 years.
Money talks. Power corrupts. Special interests rule, increasingly. And the ordinary, often unaware citizen is the victim, ill-served by his/her own government in this our “democracy.” Inestimable damage to society, to the economy, to a viable future has already been done.
Legalized influence in state houses and in Washington is every bit as devastating to democracy as is criminal corruption, most recently alleged in New York.
The writer is a retired newspaperman living in Blauvelt, N.Y., who is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.