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Congress’ big test: Cleansing itself of corruption COMMENTARY TOM BIGLER

BY FAR the greatest challenge facing the new Congress -- Republicans as well as Democrats -- is to reduce and hopefully eliminate Congress’ public image as a cesspool of corruption.

Ironically, the road to the problem of political corruption began with a fundamental requirement of our representative form of democracy: The door of a representative must always be open to his or her constituents.

Within recent decades, however, lobbying by the public has been taken over by private enterprise. There are companies in Washington and elsewhere in the country that employ a number of trained personnel (often former members of the Congress) to serve as lobbyists for the company’s clients.

These are people experienced with the routines of the Congress as well as its members and who usually find they are welcome if only to give the members of Congress another perspective on pending or proposed issues.

However, the professional lobbyists come equipped with other forms of persuasion such as tickets to Broadway shows, invitations for a flight to Barbados and a week of vacation, all expenses paid, to mention only two possibilities out of thousands.

The biggest and perhaps the most persuasive gift of all is a campaign fund contribution. Virtually all of the campaign funds are the result of “gifts” to the candidates from individuals and private organizations.

As we know, the campaigns this year have been the most expensive in the nation’s history, with hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars spent by candidates. It’s been a bonanza for the media, but is the cause for trouble within our political system.

Eventually, it has become clear that it isn’t the constituents who influence Congress, but the lobbyists and the investors whom they represent. It has led to an increasing number of voters at election time who say they aren’t going to bother voting because politicians are “all a bunch of thieves.”

There are several proposals designed to help wipe the slate clean. One goal is campaign finance reform. A major step in that reform aims to seriously regulate limits on the amount of money that an individual or a private enterprise can contribute to a candidate. There is even talk of reducing the amount that may be spent according to the class of offices that are at stake in a given election (presidential, senatorial, legislative, etc.).

While limits currently exist, they are not enforced. We have had enough of Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay and others of their ilk.

Another proposal is to extend that regulation to the individual lobbyists doing such things as listing the individuals as lobbyists, which elected officials they have seen, the client on whose behalf they are lobbying, and the size and the amount or value of any gift they have given or promised any legislator.

Admittedly, these approaches interfere to a degree with what those who are employed as public servants claim to be their private business to enforce. However, stiff regulation and its enforcement are ways in which members of the Congress can really clean house.

Further, the members are engaged in a public business, not a private business.

Understandably, these corrective proposals would be very difficult for many of the legislators to approve. But they are the most effective way of getting out of the cesspool and setting an example for the rest of America. Now there’s a challenge.

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