Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Common Cause leader: Get Money Out of Politics

by Russell J. Moore

Perhaps the biggest myth surrounding the ongoing fight in Congress to overhaul the nation’s health care system is that politicians and their bureaucrats are crafting a bill opposed by the health care industry, and in particular, the insurance industry.

A report by Common Cause, a non-partisan national organization with a chapter in Rhode Island that seeks to make government more open and accountable, seeks to debunk the myth. The report, titled “Legislating Unger The Influence”, details that from 2000 to 2008, health insurance companies have spent $83,695,546.

In 2008 alone, the health insurance industry spent over $20 million in campaign contributions to Congressional candidates.

This year, with the health care debate raging in Congress and across the country, the health care lobby, including health care professionals, pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies, are spending an average of $1.4 million per day, says Common Cause.

“Every issue that Congress has to address today is tainted by the current system of campaign contributions and money in politics,” said Bob Edgar, Common Cause national president.

Edgar should know. He spent 12 years as a Democrat member of the House of Representatives, and left politics after losing a Senatorial bid to Philadelphia Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA), who was then a Republican.

The loss, in which Edgar claims to have been outspent by the Specter campaign, emboldened him to work for campaign finance reform. After a stint Edgar took with the National Council of Churches, he joined Common Cause. Edgar was in Rhode Island for a fundraiser, and took time to sit down with local reporters late last week.

The health care debate, Edgar said, while a vitally important issue, is merely a microcosm for how things work in Washington. The result, he said, is politicians caring more about placating special interest groups instead of their own constituents.

“If I’m a congressional candidate in Rhode Island, I don’t really have to raise any money from my own constituents. I can rely solely on special interest groups to fund my campaign,” said Edgar.

Common Cause’s Rhode Island chapter supports a relatively diverse group of interests, some of which would appeal to conservatives, and others to liberals.

For instance, Common Cause supports the removal of the so-called “master lever,” which allows a voter to check off one box and vote for all candidates belonging to a particular political party.

On the other hand, Common Cause supports public financing for elections, a position that is supported by progressives but conservatives take issue with given the fact that it spends taxpayer money.

Edgar seemed to gloss over the fact that Obama broke his pledge to accept public financing for his presidential bid last year. The president did so with the realization that accepting public financing would neutralize what was to be his significant fundraising advantage.

In any event, Edgar said he was hopeful that Congress would overhaul campaign financing. That, he said, would prevent the influence of special interest groups in serious debates like health care.

“We’re not anti-lobbyists. We’re anti-money in the system. We’re lobbyists ourselves, but we’re sort of like the Don Quixote of lobbyists,” said Edgar.

John Marion, the group’s Rhode Island executive director, said that the part-time legislature often relies on lobbyists for information—not an ideal situation.

“I had a Representative once ask me who I was a lobbyist for and when I told him he said, ‘oh you’re the guys with the good information,’” said Marion.

That’s the case, Marion said, largely because the group lobbies only for good government.

Common Cause also advocates for more participation in politics, and would like to see universal voting.

“The best system is an educated public,” said Edgar.

Edgar also joked that as a Congressman, he felt he was more likely to be corrupted by his friend in Congress, as opposed to his foes.

“Your friends are more likely to corrupt you. Your enemies only want to defeat you, but your friends will try to corrupt you,” said Edgar.

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