Lobbying and Ethics Reform

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Hello, this Senator Barack Obama, and today is Thursday, February 9, 2006. Some of you may have noticed that I have been in the news as late. Myself and my pen pal, John McCain, we've been having a little tete-a-tete around the issue of lobbying reform here in Washington. The truth is, is that John is a good and decent man, he gets a little excitable sometimes, and we had a situation where he had misread a letter I had sent to him, interpreted it as an insult and we have since resolved it and cleaned it up. But, in all the spectacle that was on the news, I think we lost a little bit of focus on the very substantive issues that are at stake.

There is not a more pressing need right now than to clean up the culture of corruption that has been pervasive in Washington over the last several years. You have read the news reports: Jack Abramoff, the K Street project, Tom DeLay essentially placing his staff in lobbying firms, inviting them back in to write legislation. You've got the spectacle of the chairman of the committee responsible for writing prescription drug legislation negotiating at the same time as he's writing the legislation for the job of heading up Farma's lobbying arm. That kind of behavior has direct consequences for the American people. When you have the drug companies writing the drug laws, you end up with the kind of disastrous Medicare plan we've been seeing where seniors can't figure out how to enroll and people who are on Medicaid can't seem to get prescription drugs. When you have energy companies writing the energy bills, you end up with a situation where we don't have energy independence, but you do have sky high prices at the pump. So, lobbying reform is not just an issue for good government types, it directly impacts what happens to the daily lives of the American people.

That's why I am proud of the fact that I am helping to lead the effort here in the Senate, particularly on the Democratic side, to clean up the system. We have introduced a variety of bills to move the process forward. The first bill is called the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. We already have 41 Democrats who have signed on out of the 45. The Bill is pretty simple. It says that you can't accept gifts and meals and travel from lobbyists, it says that you can't be negotiating and get a job with a lobbying firm while you are still on staff, and that there's a cooling off period. We've also suggested that we end a practice called earmarks, which John McCain and I agree on. There's a process in which essentially individual Senators can, without letting other Senators know, inject their own pork projects into the budget, without any scrutiny or really any public knowledge. That's how you end up getting the two hundred something billion dollar bridge to nowhere in Alaska. That was two hundred something million, not billion. I don't want to exaggerate. And so, the hope is, is that if we create some transparency around this earmarks process that in fact, the money that has been budgeted for programs has been justified on the floor of the Senate, everybody knows where the money is going, there aren't any kinds of secret favors that are being done by anybody. Now, keep in mind, the vast majority of Senators use the earmarking process very responsibility. I've used earmarks to get money for projects for the University of Illinois, or for a community center, or to help a town build a senior center in their area. But, what I think is important is to make sure that we can defend these programs publicly, and that is something that unfortunately, has not been done.

There's one last lobbying provision that I think is absolutely critical. That is the need to have some independent body that is involved in enforcement of the rules. A number of the rules that were violated by Jack Abramoff and his cohorts on Capitol Hill were in fact violating rules that were already in place, but there was no system to enforce them. And so, what we've called on is to create a Congressional Ethics Enforcement Commission. A commission that would, in fact, have the authority to conduct investigations, issue subpoenas, provide public reports to the Senate Ethics Committee, or the Department of Justice so that any wrongdoing could be punished accordingly. It's going to be a tough slough. You know, the Senate is a clubby institution. Individual Senators here, I have the utmost respect for and I think they do an excellent job for their constituents. But, they don't really like people intruding on Senate business, and part of what we need right now is some sunshine as a disinfectant in Washington.

It's going to take some effort, and it's going to take some time. I'm looking forward to working with everybody, including John McCain, to make sure that we can at least start making some progress and restore some sense of confidence in how government operates here. So, wish me luck. It's going to be a little bit of rough sledding over the next couple of months. Thanks so much for listening, talk to you next week, bye bye.