WASHINGTON — [XXXXX] WASHINGTON -- Tired of politics as usual and sickened by corruption and ethics scandals, voters gave the next Congress an unmistakable mandate: Clean up your act.
Forty-two percent of voters said corruption was the single most important factor in determining whom to vote for, according to a major exit poll. These "anti-corruption" voters chose Democrats over Republicans by 60 percent to 38 percent. To put this into context, corruption ranked ahead of terrorism (40 percent), the economy (39 percent) and the war in Iraq (37 percent) as the most important issue.
Although many pundits and politicians were caught off-guard by the significance of the pay-to-play scandals, they shouldn't have been. Not only did candidates pound voters with ads paid for by big donations from favor-seeking wealthy interests, Democratic candidates consistently delivered negative messages against their Republican opponents for being in the pocket of lobbyists and well-heeled special interests, or favoring the drug or oil industries in exchange for campaign contributions. An analysis of the most competitive House races found three dozen that featured television ads linking the Republican candidate to congressional pay-to-play politics and scandals.
These ads came at the end of a year brimming with scandals. Those who watched the nightly newscasts or read the newspapers were hit with a drip, drip, drip of congressional wrongdoing and malfeasance: convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff's fraud and influence peddling, former Rep. Tom DeLay's indictment for money-laundering, two members convicted of receiving bribes, several more under FBI investigation, the mishandling of the Mark Foley affair, and so on. At some point, voters just decided that enough was enough and cast out the bad apples.
But voters want more than just to remove the rotten apples. They believe the barrel - the system - is rotten, and they want comprehensive change in how elections are paid for, not just convictions of bribe-taking politicians.
In short, voters have given Democrats a mandate to clean up Congress. But are the Democrats up to the task?
There are conflicting messages coming from the election. On one hand, more than 100 Democratic members of the next Congress have already gone on record in support of "clean elections" - public financing - for congressional races, including the incoming House majority leader, Steny H. Hoyer from Maryland's 5th Congressional District. Modeled on successful laws in seven states and two cities, clean elections force candidates to spend more time listening to voters than to campaign donors. Participating candidates agree to a spending limit and to raise little or no private money. They raise a large number of small donations to qualify for a set amount of public funding. Then the fundraising is over. A system like this revolutionizes who can run for public office and what they do after they get there.
On the other hand, congressional Democrats' fundraising has hit all-time highs. According to the Federal Elections Commission, 38 of the top 50 fundraising challengers were Democrats, 11 of whom raised more than $2 million. Democratic challengers had nearly a 3 to 1 fundraising advantage over Republican challengers, though that was largely due to the Republicans' defensive electoral posture. Will their fundraising prowess color their perception on the nature of the problems inherent in the private financing of our elections?
Speaker-to-be Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, has pledged to "sever the ties between lobbyists and legislation" in the first 100 hours of running the House of Representatives in January. The proposed changes are good first steps, as they try to restore ethics and to rein in some of the ways insider lobbyists curry favor. But the proposals don't touch one dollar contributed by lobbyists and special interests to campaigns.
The Democrats ought to think big and ask the Republicans to join them in proposing to publicly finance all congressional elections. It can be paid for with less than what is unaccounted for in Halliburton's Iraq contract. Americans know that, right now, we have the best government money can buy. The problem is with who is doing the buying.
The voters spoke loudly on corruption, and their message must be heard. Americans are thirsting for political leadership that thinks about what is right for all of us, not what's best for one party, or for the moneyed or connected few in Washington.
David Donnelly is national campaigns director for the Public Campaign Action Fund. His e-mail is email@example.com.