"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

Washington is now the shame of the free world
The Sydney Morning Herald (AU)
An American stench that should not choke us
By Bruce C. Wolpe
January 7, 2006

IT IS rocking Washington like no other scandal in Congress since the 1920s. It could topple the Republican control of the Capitol in mid-term elections in November, crippling George Bush and his ambition of cementing a Republican majority in Washington for the next two decades.

Added to a simmering brew of the continuing investigation of White House staff for leaking a CIA operative's name, the coming investigation of the mammoth domestic spying operation after September 11, 2001, and the upcoming trial of the former Republican House leader for illegal campaign contributions, we have an orgy for cable TV and bloggers.

While Bush will tell Americans at the end of this month that the State of the Union has never been stronger, and try to enlist their support for his agenda, what will be on the minds of the members of Congress in the chamber is who will be indicted next, and to whom power will shift.

The bad news is this is terribly corrosive of the institutions of democracy in Washington. There will be hell to pay. The good news is, for all the concerns about lobbying and money in Australia, what we are seeing in Washington is most unlikely to happen here. Australia's system is cleaner and more transparent and hopefully it will stay that way.

Last May, Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to fraud, bribery and tax charges, told The New York Times: "I've been shocked at how I have been portrayed in the media. If I read the articles about me, and I didn't know me, I would think I was satan."

But there is no sympathy for the devil because Abramoff embodies everything that has gone wrong in Washington over the past 15 years as lobbying has increasingly been transformed from the right to petition the government to the institutionalised opportunity to buy influence from the government.

This has been building for years. The whispers have been insistent. It has become an urban myth that you will not see certain members of Congress unless a campaign contribution has been received. You will see his staff, you can make your case, but you will not see the man himself.

Interest groups have been told by the Republican congressional leadership there will be retaliation, in terms of what they will not get from Congress, if they hire known Democrats as lobbyists.

If you represented a major corporation and did not make significant political contributions, you had the clout of a minor corporation.

What Abramoff did was crystallise the worst essence of all these trends into one revolting offence: official acts were done for money. The context of Abramoff's indictment is the perception that nothing can get done in Washington unless money is involved. This is what stinks, and is now the shame of the capital of the free world.

This is also the point of departure between Washington and Canberra. While cynicism about Australian politics will always be rife (in itself a check on the system), there are several structural differences that keep the functioning of democracy here relatively healthy.

First, parties in Australia are stronger. In the US, each of the 535 people who occupy their seats in Congress run on their own, raise their own money, develop their own positions, and are responsible to no one but themselves and their networks. This anarchic system feeds an insatiable hunger for money, and makes each politician an addicted scavenger for funds, in thrall to the suppliers.

Here, it is the parties that select and endorse the candidates, that raise and distribute the lion's share of the funds, develop the platforms and policies, and enforce discipline. Strong parties have always led to healthier democracies.

Second, compulsory voting reduces the need for money in political campaigns. In the US, with voluntary voting, unlimited funds are required to push your voters to the polls. Like nuclear war, you can never have a sufficiently large arsenal of weapons. Here, with universal turnout assured, campaign spending is more restrained. The US economy is 15 times larger than Australia's but its campaign expenditures are 40 times greater. Mandatory voting reduces the weight of political contributors on the system as a whole.

Third, sunshine is the best disinfectant. In the US no one quite knows where Moveon.org (which goes after Bush) or Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (which demolished John Kerry) get their funds. But these groups are formed to get around campaign finance rules, particularly those limiting funds from corporations. Here, as corporate contributions are legal, parties and recipients have to report their receipt, and do so cleanly. Unless taxpayers want to assume the burden of complete public funding of political campaigns, there is nothing wrong with contributions from private sources, including business and labour, as long as it is all disclosed in a timely fashion so voters can take into account who is bankrolling the names on the ballot when they vote. Maintenance of a rigorous and timely disclosure regime is critical.

For nearly two decades, there has been a growing convergence of the American and Australian political cultures, from a premium on telegenic candidates to the 24-hour-a-day news cycle to attack ads to push polling. But while Australia's political system is cleaner, and will require vigilance to keep it that way, the stench that is choking Washington won't erupt here.

Bruce C. Wolpe was a US congressional aide and Washington lobbyist, and is author of Lobbying Congress: How the System Works (Congressional Quarterly Books). He is director, corporate affairs, for Fairfax, publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald.