In an electorate that can sometimes seem intractably polarized, most agree that something is fundamentally broken in our nation’s capitol. Americans are longing for a president who can bring change and reform to Washington, DC, but where should he start? Two veteran government watchdogs, Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen and Bob Edgar of Common Cause, join Bill Moyers to help prioritize the most critical fixes in Washington.
BILL MOYERS: Our Manhattan offices are in a building that also houses the New York City Board of Elections. So this is the season when we hear above our heads the sounds of heavy objects rolling across the floor into freight elevators. The moving men have arrived and what they're transporting are voting machines being carted off to polling places. It's reassuring, the sound of those big metal boxes being rolled out so we can cast our votes, but democracy's great vulnerability, as we all know, is that our political class doesn't really trust what comes out of the ballot box on election day unless it has first fixed what goes in.
We just had that happen here in our fair city. Once upon a time our Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has done well by most accounts during almost seven years in office, supported term limits — two terms and you're out. With his time as mayor coming to an end next year, he even briefly explored running for president. But that went nowhere, so now he's decided he wants a third term in city hall, something prohibited by law.
But instead of asking voters in a public referendum to change the law, the mayor chose to work his will through a series of backroom deals. First, he enlisted the support of the fellow moguls who own the city's three major newspapers. Next, having spread his multibillionaire's largesse around to local charities, he leaned on them for support, then he strong-armed the city council, most of whose members also get an extra term if the mayor does.
Presto, it worked. And once again we are reminded of how the love of power can lead even gifted politicians to contempt for the cardinal commandment of democracy that no one is above the law, even when they have the power to change it to their own benefit.
And then we have the spectacle of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, 84 years old, his favorite necktie emblazoned with that popular anti-hero, the Incredible Hulk. Stevens was convicted this week on seven counts of lying on financial disclosure forms. The curmudgeonly Stevens declared: "It's not over yet!" And off he headed back to a hero's welcome in Alaska. He's campaigning for re-election there under the aegis of the state Republican Party which says voters shouldn't be denied the services of their prolific Earmarker and pork producer just because he's a convicted felon.
That's the kind of argument we've long heard in Washington, and you have to wonder if Barack Obama and John McCain really think they can deliver on their promises to change the dominant culture of our nation's capitol.
JOHN MCCAIN: The American people know my record, they know I am going to change Washington because I've done it before.
BARACK OBAMA: The change we need doesn't come from Washington, change comes to Washington.
SARAH PALIN: If you want change in Washington, if you hope for a better America…
BARACK OBAMA: Change is not about slogans, it's not about TV commercials.
JOHN MCCAIN: Change is coming. Change is coming. Change is coming, my friends.
BILL MOYERS: But will change really come? Is the power of money so entrenched and incorrigible that real change in Washington is impossible, no matter what happens on Tuesday? My next guests have some opinions on that. They're real reformers — non-partisan champions of the public interest — who have the scars to show for it.
Joan Claybrook is considered one of the founders of the modern public interest movement. After serving in the Carter administration she's been, for 26 years now, the president of Public Citizen, the non-profit organization that advocates greater public participation in government decision-making.
After six terms in Congress, Bob Edgar became general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. He is now president of the citizen's lobby Common Cause, founded in 1970 with the aim of keeping government honest and accountable.
Bob, Joan, welcome to the Journal.
BILL MOYERS: Your organization, Common Cause, a few weeks ago, ran a full page ad with the United States flag flying upside down. Why?
BOB EDGAR: Well, we noticed that when ships at sea are faced with a tsunami or a hurricane and they're in distress, they fly the flag upside down. We're saying that democracy is in distress. When you have Abu Ghraib prisons, when you have torture, when you have preemptive war, and when you have so many of our own people poor and disadvantaged, democracy needs to be renewed, refreshed. We flew the flag upside down to say it. We hope over the next period of time, we can turn that flag up, right side up, and see with some clarity, what democracy really ought to look like.
BILL MOYERS: No matter who wins, Joan, what's the most important change you think Washington needs right now?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, I think that it needs to have the people have a voice. There has to be more trust in the people, and the people have to trust the government. And so, the most important thing that I think that any new administration needs to do is to tackle the issues that the public cares about, and to appoint people to public office who are going to carry that out.
I mean, Bush has appointed some of the true right wing deregulators and business-oriented deregulators that have caused so much of the harm that we're now suffering in the United States. And so, the people that he appoints, I think there are all sorts of signals that could be sent by the new president, signals of what kind of inauguration they're going to have. Is it going to be fur coats and limousines? Or is it going to be the people's inaugural?
What kind of budget he's going to propose or have for the first go at this difficult time? And what kind of people are they going to appoint? Are they going to appoint the large givers to the ambassadorships and to the treasury department, and so on? Or are they going to appoint people who really represent the public interest?
BOB EDGAR: Joan's right. On November 5th begins a new era, where we have to look at the issue of people. But equally important, I think, is the role of money in politics. And I'm pretty optimistic that whoever gets elected on Tuesday will be committed to public financing.
There's been a lot of feeling and rumors that because Obama didn't sign up for the presidential public financing system, that suddenly, that whole system is broken. But on Tuesday, in Connecticut, 75 percent of those running for the state House of Representatives have voluntarily opted into public financing. And we see it in Maine, we see it in Arizona, and we see it city by city across the country. People realize that there's too much influence of special interests. We're not going to have health care legislation or environmental legislation, or fix some of the problems we face as a nation, until we lessen the amount of special interest money that invades the system.
BILL MOYERS: But some people will say you're letting Obama off the hook, because the fact that he reneged on his pledge to use public funding for his presidential race sends a message to everyone that the means — the end justifies the means.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, I think that Obama first of all, he has committed publicly to support both public financing of elections for the Congress, which we've never had, and to fix the presidential system, which is —
BILL MOYERS: But just not now.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, I agree with you.
BILL MOYERS: He broke his promise for his own advantage.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Right. And I think that that puts a tremendous pressure on him.
BOB EDGAR: He broke his promise, but also, the system itself, before either of the candidates got in, was broken. And Common Cause pointed out to both candidates that the system needed to be renewed. In fact, the whole primary system, I think, needs to be renewed, but particularly, presidential public financing. And we wanted a pledge out of both McCain and Obama that one of the first agenda items would be to fix the presidential system. And I think even though Obama did not use the system, I think he realizes that not all the candidates can get 3,100,000 donors to their campaign. And while there are a number of small donors in the system, we think there ought to be a system of clean elections, public financing at the city level, at the state level, at the Congressional level, and particularly at the presidential level.
BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you that Obama has spent more in this election than John Kerry and George W. Bush spent together in 2004?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, this is a most unusual election. He's raised a huge amount of this money through the internet. About 30 percent of his donations are from smaller donors, under $200. He has also, of course, raised a lot of money from special interests. And particularly, both he and McCain have raised a lot of money from the financial services industry. They are among their top bundlers, bundling money together and handing it over to the candidate. And that's true for both McCain and for Obama. So there's no lack of special interest money in this election.
BILL MOYERS: Politico.com did some fine reporting just this week, and came up with a list of Obama advisors you could pay to meet for $28,000. You could laugh, but this is not funny.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: No, I know.
BILL MOYERS: For $28,000 you could attend a roundtable discussion in Boston with Obama's economic advisor, Robert Rubin. For $2500, you could attend a reception with his close advisor, Tom Daschle, who is widely mentioned as his chief of staff. For $2300, you could have lunch with his senior health care advisor. For $10,000, you could dine with the senior foreign policy advisor. For $28,500, a reception with Michelle. Seriously, this sounds like business as usual.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: It does. No.
BOB EDGAR: It's exactly what both political parties do every four years. And it's exactly why we need to fix the presidential financing system, because those people who pay those high dollars to meet those powerful people, do it so that they can have access.
BILL MOYERS: Joan, you just wrote the other day: "When the campaign ends, it's payback time." What special interest groups will be camped on the White House doors for either McCain or Obama?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: I'll tell you the first one that's going to be there. And that's going to be a financial services industry. The banks, the insurance companies, the securities companies they're all going to be there. They gave Obama and have given Obama and McCain huge amounts of money. They are the largest among their bundlers, and among their large donors. They're in trouble. All these decisions that are now being made on the disbursal of the $700 billion. They are going to be right there.
BOB EDGAR: Common Cause just did a study of how many House and Senate members who serve on committees of jurisdiction have taken money from these very same industries. And we discovered that some of the people that we considered good guys in both parties took gobs of money from the banking interests. And it's no secret that the Glass-Steagall Act and other regulatory provisions that were in the law were weakened because of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the leaders giving large amounts of money. And to add to your banking interests, I think reports are that the auto industry is also now in Washington —
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Really?
BOB EDGAR: — begging for money.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Right.
BOB EDGAR: And we haven't talked —
BILL MOYERS: $25 billion dollars, and the merger between Chrysler and General Motors was hinging on the fact that the White House had pledged $50 billion to pay for the merger.
BOB EDGAR: Right.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, what —
BOB EDGAR: What an outrageous statement. But you know, I think that the defense industry, the auto industry, the banking industry, the health care industry, they're in both parties. They're funding the elections on both sides. And it just points out, lobbyists aren't bad in and of themselves. But it's the amount of money that they put into the system that corrupts the system.
BILL MOYERS: Joan, there was a story this morning in the Washington Post by Jeffrey Smith. Quote: "The White House is working to enact a wide array of federal regulations, many of which would weaken government rules aimed at protecting consumers and the environment" your great concerns "before President Bush leaves office in January...The doors at the New Executive Office Building have been whirling with corporate officials pleading for relief, or in many cases, for hastened decision making." What does that say to you?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, this is just a continuation of what Bush has done. And the reason we're in this economic distress is because he's deregulated all the financial services industry rules. And now, he's trying to finish up by deregulating the rules that protect us in global warming. And so, this has long term impact. But I will say that as a former regulator, I think that it's possible to undo some of that if a new administration comes in and wants to. So there are ways of getting rid of what he's doing.
BOB EDGAR: Well, I agree with Joan. If I were the president of the United States going out of office, I would suggest doing exactly opposite to what this story talks about. Strengthen the rules on the environment, strengthen the rules on safety. We're living in a time when deregulation has caused the economic tsunami that we're in. And I think we're looking at other actions of deregulating the environment, deregulating safety, deregulating justice. And you know, when I look in the president's eyes, I see a president that really wants to go home to Texas.
But I think there are still people around him who want to use the remaining days of this administration to do harm. And I think the American public, Republicans, Independents, Democrats, have caused a wave out there that Obama is riding and McCain is riding, that simply say, let's get Democrats and Republicans and Independents to work together to fix the health care problem and to fix the environmental issues. And let's look and work with a new attitude towards how we approach fixing the problems we face.
BILL MOYERS: And yet, the very people you need to enact the reforms you advocate: the president of the United States, whomever that might be, the new Congress, they're so beholden to this big money. I mean, Joan, big PhRMA, that's the drug companies' lobbyist, is spending $13 million in advertising on 28 Senate and House campaigns, 25 of them Democrats.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, you know, we have to make the life of those recipients of that money more unpleasant if they don't vote for the people than the PhRMA makes them happy with having given them that money.
BILL MOYERS: How do you do that? I want to know. How do you make the people unhappy who get all this money?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: You go to their speeches, you listen to their radio programs. You call in and you ask them the nasty questions. You write letters to the editor that criticize them. You picket their local district office if they vote the wrong way. You pay attention to the voting records. All of this is now on the internet. You can send letters to them every single day and harass them. They need to hear from the people, and if the people don't react to this and read what's going on, either on the internet or in newspapers or television, and get back to their members of Congress and make life unpleasant for them, and for the new president. The new president's not immune from this, either. So we think that, you know, our voice has to be heard, and it has to be heard loud and clear again and again and again and again.
BOB EDGAR: Organizations like ours have to be more creative in our marketing and more able to research those dollars and who is taking the dollars, and how they're voting. There is a conflict of interest that is there. And we've got to expose that conflict of interest by getting that information out to their constituents, that the good government House member or Senate member that they thought they elected, may in fact, be in the pocket of these special interests.
BILL MOYERS: There's a very good organization in Washington, a new organization called the Sunlight Foundation, that is what it says. It's disinfecting the fog that hangs over the public records in Washington, and making transparency available on these records to people across to Public Citizen and Common Cause, right?
BOB EDGAR: They have to use more deep and more toxic cleansing material, because it hasn't gotten out. The Sunlight Foundation's doing a great job. And I think there are a number of people out there who are trying to research and study and expose those elected officials who are crossing the line.
BILL MOYERS: But as a journalist who has to see the world without rose colored glasses, we see it as it is, the fact of the matter is that public financing, which you both support, broke down this time. Congress is being elected with huge sums of money coming from people who will have the access that your average citizens can never achieve. And I'm wondering what it is, after 26 years, despite rolling that stone up the hill only to see it come down, keeps you going as you do.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: We've had so many successes. That's what keeps me going.
BILL MOYERS: Such as?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, we've gotten all sorts of health and safety environmental laws changed. If you ask the conservatives and the business guys whether or not we have challenged them at every stage and won so many of our battles, then they're going to say, "That's why we, you know, had to put all this money into the system." Of course we have. We've won and won and won. And I believe that the people understand the role that we play. They care about it deeply. They support and help with that.
And our job is to try and give them the access that allows them to have some kind of influence in the future. I believe that in this next administration, whether it's John McCain, the maverick, or whether it's Obama, the change agent, we are going to see a lot of change. And that they're going to be forced by the circumstances of the economic downturn that we have, virtually a recession. They're going to be forced by the bailing out of these banks and these rich entities that have engaged in such outrageous misbehavior, that should be put in jail, in my view.
They're going to say it's our turn. And they're going to act on that, because they're outraged. And that's why so many people have been participating in this election. And I think that they're going to be fed up with any president, any president who does not give the public a voice.
BOB EDGAR: Bill, I'm going to give you some hope.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, right.
BOB EDGAR: Go take a look at Connecticut and what they're doing with public financing. Take a look at cities like Albuquerque and Portland and other cities that are beginning to move towards public financing. There are victories there. And as Joan has said, we wouldn't have seat belts or air bags if it were not for people like Joan getting involved in the transportation area.
So there are victories that can be there. But we have to recognize: since 1980, the religious right and the political right have had a civil marriage. And they've dictated the policies. I think this election is a seminal election that's changing the beatitude of where we're going.
BILL MOYERS: No matter which candidate wins, whether it's Obama —
BOB EDGAR: No matter which candidate.
BILL MOYERS: — or McCain, you sense reform?
BOB EDGAR: I sense reform and change, and hunger across this nation to do what's right.
BILL MOYERS: Bob Edgar of Common Cause, and Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen, thank you very much for being on the Journal.
BOB EDGAR: Thank you.