When it comes to reforming Washington and limiting the power of special interests, a man who died more than 60 years ago had exactly the right idea. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."
Brandeis was a progressive responding to the excesses of the Gilded Age. Nearly a century later, we find Washington in need of a lot of sunlight and disinfectant.
Today, powerful special interests run Washington. The Republican Party's infamous "K Street Project" put lobbyists at the center of policymaking and political fundraising. The drug and insurance industries alone have spent more than $1 billion on lobbying and campaign contributions in the last 10 years. And, for the most part, they have achieved the results they wanted. It's no wonder that, last November, Americans cast a strong vote for change.
In response, Democrats in the House and Senate, with significant Republican support, have adopted new restrictions on the power of lobbyists. But one significant reform remains undone: shedding sunlight on the practice of "bundling" campaign contributions.
Under current campaign-finance rules, an individual lobbyist is limited to writing a personal check for a maximum of $2,300. But that's where the bundling starts. A lobbyist can collect check after check from other individuals and deliver the entire bundle to a candidate for office. Sometimes those stacks contain $20,000, $100,000 or even $250,000. As the rules stand today, lobbyists have to only report their own contributions -- not the money they've raised from others. These lobbyists are delivering millions in bundled contributions to the very politicians from whom they are seeking favorable votes or legislation. That shouldn't remain a secret. The public has a right to know.
It is no coincidence that the best bundlers are often granted the greatest access, and access is power in Washington. When the bundlers are lobbyists, we must require full disclosure because they and their clients have a financial stake in the outcome of specific legislation. That gets in the way of public officials doing the business of the people -- all of the people, not just a few.
We can't stop individual lobbyists from raising money. But we certainly can make it clear to the public whom they are raising it for -- and from. This will help clarify the link between campaign cash and decisions made in Washington.
The Senate passed legislation last year that would make lobbyists disclose how much they bundle and whom they bundle it from. It would require quarterly reporting of all contributions that a lobbyist collected or arranged that total more than $200 in a calendar year. This includes not only campaign contributions, but also contributions to presidential libraries, inaugural committees and lawmakers' charities. The law doesn't call for a complete halt in bundling. It just calls on lobbyists who have a stake in the outcome of legislation to disclose that information to the public.
The House is about to vote on a similar measure. Some members of Congress -- some in my own party -- claim that this law is too tough. They say it puts us at a fundraising disadvantage just at the moment we've regained control of the House and Senate. But we shouldn't forget how Democrats won a congressional majority -- by promising sweeping ethics reform to change Washington and reduce the power of special interests. We need to deliver.
If an individual is lobbying for the big drug companies, we need to know if he or she is bundling hundreds of thousands of dollars for those committee members. If a lobbyist works for the oil industry, we need to know if he was a Bush Pioneer. And if a defense contractor is raising lots of money for Armed Services Committee members, we need to know that too.
To set an example in the 2008 presidential election, I am refusing to accept campaign contributions from registered lobbyists, political-action committees, and I won't take contributions bundled by lobbyists. I'm also reporting any contributions that are bundled -- whether it's from a small-town doctor or a chief executive officer. If we can open up the system and pull aside the curtain of secrecy, then we might be able to start changing the way Washington works.