Remarks of Senator Barack Obama at the Lobbying Reform Summit
Lobbying Reform Summit hosted by American University Professor James Thurber
National Press Club
Good morning. I want to start by thanking American University and the Committee for Economic Development for hosting this panel today. It's an honor to be here and an honor to be among such great company.
Over one hundred years ago, at the dawn of the last century, the Industrial Revolution was beginning to take hold of America, creating unimaginable wealth in sprawling metropolises all across the country.
As factories multiplied and profits grew, the winnings of the new economy became more and more concentrated in the hands of a few robber barons, railroad tycoons and oil magnates. In the cities, power was maintained by a corrupt system of political machines and ward bosses. And in the state of New York, there existed a young governor who was determined to give government back to the people.
In just his first year, he had already begun to antagonize the state's political machine by attacking its system of favors and corporate giveaways. He also signed a workers' compensation bill, and even fired the superintendent of insurance for taking money from the very industry he was supposed to be regulating.
None of this sat too well with New York's powerful party boss, who finally plotted to get rid of the reform-minded governor by making sure he was nominated for the Vice Presidency that year.
What no one could have expected is that soon after the election, when President William McKinley was assassinated, the greatest fears of the corrupt machine bosses and powerbrokers came true when that former governor became President of the United States and went on to bust trusts, break up monopolies, and return the government to its people.
His name, of course, was Theodore Roosevelt. He was a Republican. And throughout his public life, he demonstrated a willingness to put party and politics aside in order to battle corruption and give people an open, honest government that would fight for their interests and uphold their values.
Today, we face a similar crisis of corruption. And I believe that we deserve similar leadership from those in power as well.
The American people are tired of a Washington that's only open to those with the most cash and the right connections. They're tired of a political process where the vote you cast isn't as important as the favors you can do. And they're tired of trusting us with their tax dollars when they see them spent on frivolous pet projects and corporate giveaways.
It's not that the games that are played in this town are new or surprising to the public. People are not naive to the existence of corruption and they know it has worn the face of both Republicans and Democrats over the years.
Moreover, the underlying issue of how extensively money influences politics is the original sin of everyone who's ever run for office - myself included. In order to get elected, we need to raise vast sums of money by meeting and dealing with people who are disproportionately wealthy. This is a problem that predates George Bush or Jack Abramoff, and I believe that a serious, bipartisan conversation about campaign finance reform is one that this town would do well to have in the months to come.
Yet, while people are familiar with these problems and they encompass both parties, I do think it's fair to say that the scandals we've seen under the current White House and Congress - both legal and illegal - are far worse than most of us could have imagined.
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 and his cronies.
Now, there's an argument made that somehow this is a bipartisan scandal. And the defense here is that everybody does it. Well, not everybody does it. And people shouldn't lump together those of us who have to raise funds to run campaigns but do so in a legal and ethical way with those who invite lobbyists in to write bad legislation. Those aren't equivalent, and we're not being partisan by pointing that out.
The fact is, since this Republican leadership has come to power, this kind of scandal has been the regular order of business in this town. For years now, they have openly bragged about stocking K Street lobbying firms with former leadership staffers to increase their power in Washington.
And yet, what is truly offensive to the American people about all of this goes far beyond people like Jack Abramoff. It's bigger than how much time he'll spend in jail or how many Republicans he'll turn in. Bigger than the K Street project and golf junkets to Scotland and lavish gifts for lawmakers.
What's truly offensive about these scandals is that they don't just lead to morally offensive conduct on the part of politicians; they lead to morally offensive legislation that hurts hardworking Americans.
Because 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 a Committee Chairman negotiates a Medicare bill at the same time he's negotiating for a job as the drug industry's lobbyist, it's hardly a surprise when that industry gets taxpayer-funded giveaways in the same bill that forbids seniors from bargaining 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 drive us into deficit with the hope that no one will notice.
In 2004, over $2.1 billion was spent lobbying Congress. That amounts to over $4.8 million per Member of Congress. $4.8 million per member so that oil companies can still run our energy policy and pharmaceutical companies can still raise our drug prices and special interests can still waste our tax dollars on pet projects.
How much do you think the American people were able to spend on their Senator or Representative last year? How much money could the folks who can't fill up their gas tanks spend? How much could the seniors forced to choose between their medications and their groceries spend?
Not $4.8 million. Not even close.
This is the bigger story here, and this is why the recent scandals have shaken the American people's faith in a government that will look out for their interests and uphold their values.
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 need 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.
Now, I've been asked by my caucus to take a role in lobbying reform - a role I'm proud to have. As many 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. But 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. I hope we can do something like that here.
I realize there are many proposals floating around out there, and I also realize that our friends on the other side of the aisle have many of their own. I think that's commendable. In fact, I look forward to working in a bipartisan fashion to get a solid bill passed.
But this has to be a serious bill, and it has to go a long way toward correcting some of the most egregious offenses of the last few years. This is not a time for window-dressing or putting a band-aid on a problem just to score political points. This is a time for real reform, and I think the Democrats' Honest Leadership and Open Government Act does this by including provisions that so far the Republican proposals do not.
Real reform means making sure that Members of Congress and the Administration tell us when they're negotiating for jobs with industries they're responsible for regulating. That way we don't have people writing a drug bill during the day and meeting with pharmaceutical companies about their future salary at night.
Real reform means giving the public access to now-secret conference committee meetings and posting all bills on the Internet 24 hours before they're voted on, so the public can scrutinize what's in them.
Real reform means passing a bill that eliminates all gifts and meals from lobbyists, not just the expensive ones. If the we truly agree that having a lobbyist constantly pick up the tab for lunch can help influence legislation, then they'll have no problem changing their position so that the ban includes meals of any price.
Real reform means ending the no-bid contracts for well-connected contributors that have wasted millions of taxpayer dollars in both Iraq and the Gulf Coast. And it means ending the practice of appointing your political buddies to positions they are wholly unqualified for. It means no more Brownies.
Finally, I think that real reform must include real oversight and accountability. Our bill sets up an independent Office of Public Integrity to keep an eye on lobbyists and to make sure they comply with the rules.
Now, personally, I think that there's an opportunity for us to go even further than some of the proposals that have come from both parties. And that's why last week I introduced the CLEAN UP Act, which would build on the Democrats' reform bill by giving the American public a clearer view of what's going on here in Washington.
See, one of the reasons why lobbyists like Abramoff and their allies in Congress have been able to manipulate the system is because most of their backroom deals are done in secret. Just the other day, we heard that because of pressure from health care industry lobbyists, Republican negotiators met behind closed doors and changed a budget bill to provide a $22 billion giveaway to HMOs -- $22 billion that would come right out of the pockets of American taxpayers. But of course, no one knew about the change until much later, and no lawmaker would admit to making it.
This is an outrage, and my bill would change this by identifying secret provisions like these that weren't in the original bill, and it would let the public know who put them there, so that special interest giveaways couldn't be slipped in at the last minute. My bill also would shine the spotlight on those pet projects that lawmakers sneak into every spending bill by requiring that they earmarks be posted on the internet 72 hours before they're voted on. The watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, recently endorsed this bill, and I hope that the Senate will take it up soon.
Let me close with one final point. Even if we pass a good bill and rid Washington of the Jack Abramoffs of the world, it's going to take much more than gift bans and lobbying reform to restore the public's faith in a government. It will take not simply a change in laws, but a change in attitudes.
To do this - 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 finding cushy political jobs for unqualified buddies, it's time to start finding good-paying jobs for hardworking Americans trying to raise a family.
Instead of hitting up the big firms on K Street, it's time to start visiting the workers on Main Street who wonder 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.
A century ago, that young, reform-minded governor of New York who later became our twenty-sixth President gave us words about our country everyone in this town would do well to listen to today. Teddy Roosevelt said that,
"No republic can permanently endure when its politics are corrupt and base...we can afford to differ on the currency, the tariff, and foreign policy, but we cannot afford to differ on the question of honesty. There is a soul in the community, a soul in the nation, just exactly as their is a soul in the individual; and exactly as the individual hopelessly mars himself if he lets his conscience be dulled by the constant repetition of unworthy acts, so the nation will hopelessly blunt the popular conscience if it permits its public men continually to do acts which the nation in its heart of hearts knows are acts which cast discredit upon our whole public life."
I can only hope that in the weeks to come, the work we do here and in Congress will once again strengthen this nation's soul and bring credit back to our public life. Thank you.