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NOW ON SENATE FLOOR: Ethics Debate--Obama just spoke

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The Senate is taking up ethics legislation today. The House still has to act.

Sweet's prognosis: Final product will be thin broth, not soup.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Democratic lead on ethics reform just spoke from the Senate floor on behalf of a measure to ban lawmakers from getting free meals from lobbyists.

( Obama's use of corporate jets to take discount flights and his decision to stop was the lead of a story in the New York Times today. It's old news to my Sun-Times readers. Last month, I broke the story about Obama's taking these subsidized flights--and his new policy to pay full fare if he takes a private plane)

In the Senate chamber, Obama just said, ``on the way to the floor,'' he asked folks working in the Capitol if lobbyists paid for any of their meals and it ``turns out people pay for their own lunches and their own dinners.''

It's just not right, said Obama, for lawmakers to ``feast on a free steak dinner.....It’s not just the meal that’s the problem, it is the perception….the best way to get face time with a member is to buy them a meal…something has to stop.''

No one is proposing lawmakers do not eat with lobbyists. Just pay your way. Said Obama, ``simply pull out your wallet and pay for it.''

Remarks prepared for delivery from Obama's office............................

Opening Statement for Floor Debate on Ethics Reform

Senator Barack Obama

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.


1 Comment

Free meals? Why is he spending his time on such a minuscule part of the problem? Can't he see the elephant in the room? This sounds like grandstanding by Obama---making it look like he's doing something while the status quo is preserved.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on March 8, 2006 10:25 AM.

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