Remarks: Honest Leadership and Open Government

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As most of you know, I'm from Chicago - a city that hasn't always had the cleanest reputation when it comes to politics in this country. In fact, one of the most famous moments in Chicago political life came back in the 50s, when one of Chicago's old-time ward bosses, a guy named Paddy Bauer, was reported to have danced on his chair after the Chicago machine defeated a reform candidate and shouted out for the entire chamber to hear, that "Chicago ain't ready for reform."

I stand here today with my colleagues to say that the American people are ready for reform.

In fact, the American people think reform is long overdue.

Now, let me say at the outset that none of us claim that the Democrats have a monopoly on virtue. Moreover, political corruption is not unique to Washington. During my first year in the Illinois State Senate, I helped lead the fight to pass Illinois' first ethics reform bill in twenty-five years - in part to address some of the questionable practices that were going on in Springfield.

But I think it's fair to say that the scandals that we've seen, both legal and illegal, under the current White House and Congress, are far worse than most of us could have imagined.

Americans may have grown accustomed to big money and special interests exerting too much influence in Washington, but even they have been shocked by what appears to be a systematic takeover of our democracy by high-priced lobbyists.

Think about it. In the past several months, we've seen politicians resigning for taking millions of dollars in bribes.

We've seen the head of the White House procurement office arrested. We've seen some of our most powerful leaders of both the House and the Senate under federal investigation. We've seen the number of registered lobbyists in Washington double since George Bush came into office. And of course, we've seen the indictment of Jack Abramoff.

Over the past few days, there have been suggestions by Republican operatives and commentators that this is somehow a bipartisan scandal.

But let's be clear - while the Democrats certainly are not without sin when it comes to money in politics, Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon and the K Street project - these are Republican sins, and Republican sins alone.

What is also true is that the offenses involved go beyond Jack Abramoff. They are bigger than golf junkets to Scotland and lavish gifts for lawmakers.

The recent scandals have shaken the very foundation of the American people's faith in a government that will look out for their interests and uphold their values.

Because they don't just lead to morally offensive conduct on the part of politicians. They lead to morally offensive legislation that hurts hardworking Americans.

When big oil companies are invited into the White House for secret energy meetings, it's no wonder they end up with billions in tax breaks while Americans still struggle to fill up their gas tanks and heat their homes.

When the halls of Congress are filled with high-priced lobbyists from the pharmaceutical industry - some who used to be members of Congress - it's hardly a surprise that they get taxpayer-funded giveaways in the same Medicare bill that forbids seniors from banding together to negotiate for better drug prices.

When the people running Washington are accountable only to the special interests that fund their campaigns, of course they'll spend your tax dollars with reckless abandon; of course they'll load up bills with pet projects and driving us into deficit with the hope that no one will notice.

At this point, the well-connected CEOs and hired guns on K Street who've helped write our laws have gotten what they paid for. They got all the tax breaks and loopholes and access they could ever want. But outside this city, the people who can't afford the high-priced lobbyists and don't want to break the law are wondering, "When is it our turn? When will someone in Washington stand up for me?"

We're here today to answer that call because let's face it - for the last few years, the people running Washington simply haven't. And while only some are to blame for the corruption that has plagued this city, all are responsible for fixing it.

That's why we're asking Republicans to put an end to the pay-to-play schemes and join us in passing the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which should go a long way toward correcting some of the most egregious offenses of the last few years.

You've already heard some of the key provisions in our proposal. It will prevent former Members of Congress from lobbying for legislation they were voting on just a year ago, it will provide more transparency to allow the public to see exactly what their representatives are doing in Washington, and it will end the gifts and trips that allowed people like Jack Abramoff to influence politicians.

I realize that our friends on the other side of the aisle have suddenly found religion on this topic, and I think that's commendable. In fact, I look forward to working in a bipartisan fashion to get a solid bill passed. But let me close by saying that it's going to take much more than gift bans and lobbying reform to restore the public's faith in a government of, by, and for the American people.

To earn back that trust - to show people that we're working for them and looking out for their interests - we have to start acting like it.

That means instead of meeting with lobbyists, it's time to start meeting with some of the 45 million Americans with no health care. Instead of hitting up the big firms on K Street, it's time to start visiting the workers on Main Street who are wondering how they'll send their kids to college or whether their pension will be around when they retire. All these people have done to earn access and gain influence is cast their ballot, but in this democracy, it's all anyone should have to do. The people running this town need to realize that, and if we hope to be real reformers, that's the place we need to start.