March 7, 2006
Mr. President. 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 was 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 need 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 Jack Abramoff.
I agree with those on both sides of the aisle who believe that we shouldn't let half-measures and partisan posturing on campaign finance reform derail our current efforts on ethics and lobbying, but I also think this is an issue and a conversation we must have in the months to come.
Yet, while people know that both parties are vulnerable to these problems, 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 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 indictment of Jack Abramoff and his cronies. And of course, last week, we saw a member of Congress sentenced to eight years in prison for bribery.
Now, some have dismissed these scandals by saying 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 our federal government has been controlled by one political party, this kind of scandal has become the regular order of business in this town.
For years now, some on the other side of the aisle have openly bragged about stocking K Street lobbying firms with former staffers to increase their power in Washington, a practice that should stop today and never happen again.
But what's 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 members of Congress 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.
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 most working people struggle to fill up their gas tanks and heat their homes.
When a Committee Chairman negotiates a Medicare bill one day and then negotiates for a job with the drug industry the next, it's hardly a surprise that 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, it's not shocking that the American people find their tax dollars being spent with reckless abandon.
Since George Bush took office, we've seen the number of registered lobbyists in Washington double. In 2004, over $2.1 billion was spent lobbying Congress. That amounts to over $4.8 million per Member of Congress.
How much do you think the American people were able to spend on their Senators or Representatives 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. The American people believe that 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 while only some are to blame for the corruption that has plagued this city, all are responsible for fixing it.
As 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.
But we have to pass a serious bill, and it has to go a long way towards correcting some of the most egregious offenses of the last few years and preventing future offenses as well. 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. I think the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which has 41 cosponsors, established the right marker for reform, and I commend Senator Harry Reid and his staff for their hard work in putting it together.
Real reform means making sure that Members of Congress and senior Administration officials wait until they leave office before pursuing jobs with industries they're responsible for regulating.
Billy Tauzin may say he wasn't negotiating for a job with the drug industry at the same time he was negotiating the Medicare bill, but the fact is this: while he was a Member of Congress, he was negotiating for lobbying jobs with not one, but two different industries that he was responsible for regulating: the drug industry and the motion picture association. That's wrong, and that shouldn't happen anymore.
Real reform means ensuring that a ban on lobbying after members of Congress leave office is real and includes the behind the scenes coordination and supervision activities now used to skirt the ban.
Real reform means giving the public access to now-secret conference committee meetings and posting all bills on the Internet at least a day 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.
And real reform must mean real enforcement. Because no matter how many new rules we pass, it will mean very little unless you have a system to enforce them.
I commend Senators Lieberman and Collins for their efforts to create such an enforcement mechanism through an independent Office of Public Integrity. While this proposal doesn't go quite as far as my proposal for an outside ethics fact-finding commission, it's still very good, and I will work with them to try to get it included in this bill.
But to truly earn back the people's trust - to show them that we're working for them and looking out for their interests - we have to do more than just pass a good bill this week. We have to fundamentally change the way we do business around here.
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 there 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 hope that this week, we in the Senate will take the first step towards strengthening this nation's soul and bringing credit back to our public life.