BILL MOYERS: Welcome back. Bob Kerrey joins me later in the broadcast.
But first, although Democrats control Congress, they are having to struggle to prove it. But they gave up on the idea that they could pressure President Bush to agree to an end-date for the war in Iraq. Now they are huffing and puffing to make good on their promise to clean up the ethics of Congress.
Voters made it clear last November that they couldn't stomach all the bribes, corporate contributions, and lobbying dollars crossing the palms of rapacious politicians - and they threw the rascals out. Now the Democrats are trying to prove it really is a new day. Let's see how they are doing.
You couldn't miss the exhilaration - or the promise.
NANCY PELOSI (Election night, Nov. 7, 2006): "The American people voted to restore integrity and honesty in Washington, DC. And the Democrats intend to lead the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history."
BILL MOYERS: Democrats were back were back on top in Congress. After years of Republican scandals - of Jack Abramoff - Tom DeLay - Bob Ney - Duke Cunningham - Mark Foley - among others - voters were fed up.
They told the pollsters corruption in government was second only to the war in Iraq as their most important concern.
The new class of freshman Democrats got the message:
PAUL HODES (D-NH): We're here today to tell the American people that as far as we're concerned, those past days are over. We're gonna run this show differently. We know and the American people know that sunshine is the best disinfectant.
BILL MOYERS: The new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised quick action:
NANCY PELOSI (January 4, 2007): Our first order of business is passing the toughest congressional ethics reform in history.
BILL MOYERS: That same day, Nancy Pelosi pushed through rule changes to loosen the lobbyists' grip. No more gifts to members of Congress. No more free meals - like the ones Jack Abramoff had served at his Washington restaurant. And no more flights on corporate jets - like those Abramoff arranged for members of Congress and staff who did him favors.
But that was just the beginning — both the Senate and House have now passed bills to throw sunshine on the shadows of where lobbyists make their deals.
All this makes Joan Claybrook one happy woman.
BILL MOYERS: The new Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said, "We're gonna get the toughest Congressional ethics reform in history." Are we?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: This is the toughest?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: There's more to do always. But the House just passed a really important bill that has more public disclosure about lobbying activities than has ever been the case.
BILL MOYERS: Joan Claybrook runs Public Citizen, the public interest watchdog group in Washington. She's been its President for 25 years.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: We really started fighting for this in the early '90s. And we got one bill through in 1995. And it was the beginning. This is the next step. And it's a major, major change. It really is.
BILL MOYERS: But change hasn't come easy — not all Democrats are cooperating. In the House, freshmen reformers and leaders like Nancy Pelosi have met resistance from rank-and-file in their own party.
Even a close Pelosi ally, Representative John Murtha from Pennsylvania, "Derided the ethics bill as 'total crap.'"
One of the big fights among Democrats has involved a fundraising technique called "bundling." That's when a lobbyist pulls together a bunch of campaign contributions from individuals and then gets the credit from the candidate for delivering that big bundle of cash.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Even though the limit for any one check is $2,300, the bundle can be $100,000 or $200,000. And so it has a huge impact on the thought process of the member of Congress who does not like to raise money. And so they feel very indebted.
But there's been no requirement for any public disclosure of the lobbyist's role. So the public and press can't hold anyone accountable.
That will change if the reform bill passes. But keep in mind, that for all the transparency, it won't put an end to the bundling. And that troubles reformers who believe big money corrupts our political system.
BILL MOYERS: Does this new legislation mean there won't be another Jack Abramoff?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: No. It doesn't. It means it's going to be harder for a Jack Abramoff type person to insinuate themselves because they're not gonna able to take them on their corporate jets. And they're going to have to do a lot of disclosure, and it has to be disclosed on the internet and has to be immediate and they have to say what it's for.
It's the lack of disclosure has made it very difficult to-- for the public and for the public interest groups like ours to oversee what members are doing and to embarrass them into not doing it.
BILL MOYERS: Lobbyists swarm over Congress like bees seek honey. There are more than 13,000 registered lobbyists in town - plus all the lawyers and PR types who back them up in their pursuit of favors.
Last year alone, more than two and a half billion dollars was spent on direct lobbying — and that doesn't even count the vast sums in campaign contributions that lobbyists help raise — the really big money.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: It has a huge impact on the member of Congress. And they are going to give back something, usually out of the Federal Treasury, to the lobbyists.
BILL MOYERS: You mean the taxpayer's gonna pay for it?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: The taxpayer's gonna pay for it. The taxpayer always pays for it.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, you get a tax break. You get a change in regulation. You get a subsidy, you know? They all come out of the Federal Treasury.
BILL MOYERS: Money's always been a force in politics. Is it playing out now differently than 25 years ago?t
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Oh yes. It it's much-- bigger. Because the amount of money that corporations are willing to spend is huge. They never were willing to spend this kind of money.
Now they hire lobbyists, lobbying firms. They sometimes have six and eight lobbying firms for one company. And they spend money, any amount it takes, just huge, huge amounts.
BILL MOYERS: But as Senator Bernie Sanders sees it - no matter how much light the reform bill might shine on lobbying — as long as big money floods into Congress government will continue to serve corporate interests at the expense of the public.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: In terms of ethics, I think the most important aspect has yet to be dealt with. And that is the enormous power that big money-- institutions, large corporations, have over the whole political process, through their lobbying efforts, and through their campaign contributions.
And has Congress gotten that message yet? No, of course it has not. The amount of money that comes into both political parties is extraordinary.
BILL MOYERS: And after all her years in Washington, Joan Claybrook sees what that money can buy.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: The system's working for the big money people. And those are the corporations. They're the ones that have the billions of dollars to spend, which they do, on lobbying, campaign contributions. They ingratiate themselves with members of Congress. They end up getting all their special interest provisions into these various bills in very arcane ways.
BILL MOYERS: For just one case study, Claybrook points to the energy bill passed in 2005. In the four years before the legislation was signed into law energy companies spent about eight hundred and fifty million dollars buying access to politicians through lobbying and campaign contributions. But that was nothing compared to what the energy companies got back - a whopping twenty six billion dollars in subsidies from taxpayers.
BILL MOYERS: It's a good investment. Good return on the investment.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Great return on the investment.
BILL MOYERS: Better than Wall Street.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Much better. If you were a corporation and you wanted to improve your bottom line, the first thing you should do is go hire a bunch of really great lobbyists to get money out of the US Treasury and into your corporate bottom line.
BILL MOYERS: No one is better at it than the drug industry.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (Senate floor, May 2, 2007): Since 1998, the pharmaceutical industry has spent over $900 million on lobbying activities; $900 million since 1998. That is more than any other industry in the United States of America. It is hard to believe, but there are now over 1,200 prescription drug lobbyists right here in America, many of them right here on Capitol Hill. That amounts to more than two lobbyists for every member of the House and the Senate. They have us all well covered.
BILL MOYERS: Money well spent.
Look at what happened just last month when the drug companies fought an effort by Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota to lower the prices we pay for our medication.
SEN. BYRON DORGAN (D- ND; Senate floor, May 1, 2007): The fact is, the American consumers are charged the highest prices for prescription drugs anywhere in the world.
BILL MOYERS: So Dorgan proposed to let Americans import drugs from abroad, where they are often sold at far lower prices — like the cholesterol drug, Lipitor.
SEN. DORGAN (D-ND, Senate floor, May 1, 2007): FDA-approved medicine produced in an FDA-approved plant in Ireland and then sent to Canada and the United States. The difference? Well no difference — same plastic in the bottle, same medicine inside — except the price. The Canadian pays $1.83 per tablet, and the American pays $3.57--96% more. The American consumer is told: Guess what, we have a special deal for you, you get to pay 96% more for the same medicine.
BILL MOYERS: It's no wonder 80% of Americans in one Harris Poll favored allowing drugs to be imported from abroad.
But 80% of the public can't compete in the Senate with the Washington drug cartel. In the end, industry won and Dorgan's proposal for cheaper drugs was buried.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (interview): As powerful as the oil companies are, as powerful as the banks are, as powerful as corporate America, in general, is, in influencing legislation, the pharmaceutical industry stands as a world unto itself. They never lose.
BILL MOYERS: For Senator Bernie Sanders, the issue goes to the very heart of the political process.
SEN. SANDERS: It's not just the need to lower the cost of prescription drugs. It's really a question as to whether or not the United States Congress can, in fact, represent ordinary Americans, and stand up to extraordinarily well funded, powerful, special interests. And so far, for the last many years, we have been failing that test.
BILL MOYERS: Many new members of Congress agree with him.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D-NY): We have the greatest democracy in the world. But, when we have members of Congress who break the public's trust and when we have large industry groups writing legislation, it begins to make people wonder, "Are people being represented by the representatives or are they only representing special interests?"
BILL MOYERS: One problem for these reformers is Washington's famous revolving door. Members of Congress use their positions to negotiate for lucrative jobs in industry - and then turn around and lobby their former colleagues.
Few have done it as brazenly as Billy Tauzin.
Tauzin was chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee with jurisdiction over drug companies. He helped shepherd through Congress a major reform of Medicare — which for the first time — provided seniors with prescription drug coverage.
PRESIDENT BUSH (at signing of Medicare Act, December 8, 2003): This legislation is a victory for all of America's seniors.
BILL MOYERS: But drug companies were the big winners. They stood to make a huge windfall - all the more so, because Billy Tauzin and his allies in Congress saw to it that Medicare would have to pay top dollar for the drugs.
Just a month after President Bush signed the bill, Billy Tauzin was considering a job offer from the drug companies. and a year later, the same day he left Congress Tauzin became their star lobbyist with starting pay more than a million dollars a year.
He's just one of many — Forty-three percent of the members of Congress who left office between 1998 and 2004 went on to become lobbyists earning salaries approaching, or exceeding $1 million.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Their advantage is that they know the way the system works. They know how to ingratiate themselves with members of Congress just the right way. Not too much, not too little. And they know how legislation passes. It's very complicated. It's a very complicated process.
BILL MOYERS: And they also know the old staff. They know--
JOAN CLAYBROOK: They know the old staff, and the members, and the parliamentarian. I mean there are lots of people that are critical to maneuvering the bill through. And they know the rules of each committee, and they know the rules of the House, and the rules of the Senate. That's how they operate. They know how to do it.
BILL MOYERS: That's why reformers want to slow down the revolving door.
And here so far, the Democrats have a mixed record.
Reformers did succeed in both the Senate and House in passing what could be called the "Billy Tauzin memorial revolving door" rule.
It requires members and certain staff to disclose if they're negotiating for jobs in private industry - and it would prohibit them from working on legislation that would benefit their future employer.
Reformers also wanted to extend from one to two years the period a departing member must wait before going to work lobbying. But too many Democrats objected.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Just two years. Just two years. It's not that long. You just have to wait a little bit of time to cool off so that your excessive influence and knowledge and all the rest of it is not just being sold to private interest, to-- again, use the public treasury for their own benefit.
BILL MOYERS: Why didn't they change that?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, because as one aide said to me, members of Congress are thinking about their next job. And their next job is going to be a lobbying job. They're going to make thousands and millions of dollars. So they're moving from public service to private wealth.
BILL MOYERS: And this, says Joan Claybrook, gets us to the meat of why Congress needs to clean house. The politicians simply refuse to police their own ethics.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: The Ethics Committees aren't really doing their job. I mean, you can have all the rules in the world, and if you don't enforce them, then it doesn't really matter. And Tom DeLay avoided enforcement, the Ethics Committee was made into a eunuch. It was just a nothing in both the House and the Senate but primarily in the House--
BILL MOYERS: In the House-- and the House Ethics Committee re-- failed to follow up on the Foley scandal, the guy who was messing around with the pages while the Republican leadership was trying to cover up what he was doing, right?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Absolutely. And they haven't tackled many issues. Many of the people who have been indicted - those issues never came out of the Ethics Committee.
For freshman Democrat Zack Space that's a matter that hits close to home.
He took the seat of Republican Bob Ney, who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from Jack Abramoff and his pals. For that, Ney is serving two and a half years in prison.
ZACK SPACE (D-OH): I don't know what drove a guy like Bob Ney to do what he did. Whether it was greed or the wrong kind of friends-- just really bad judgment-- but I think part of it was he thought he could get away with it. And the hope here is that we create a mechanism whereby there is no question in every member's mind that if you engage in that kind of conduct, you're going to be called on it.
BILL MOYERS: To hold their own members accountable, reformers want an independent Office of Public Integrity. This outside group would investigate complaints of wrongdoing - and make recommendations to Congress for any punishment.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: The Ethics Committee are brothers and sisters to the members of Congress, and that's the way they view each other. And it's very hard to investigate your brother and sister. And so you need this independent office to do the heavy lifting.
BILL MOYERS:Is it going anywhere, this idea of an independent office?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Not yet. It was voted down big time in the Senate by 27 to 71. The Senators do not want to have that kind of independent voice. And in the House, Nancy Pelosi, to her credit, has been trying to get it. And so she appointed a special committee to come up with to negotiate and negotiate and negotiate. They've been negotiating for, like, six months now. And it still hasn't come to closure. So we're very skeptical, but we are pushing like mad for this because it's the essence of this reform.
BILL MOYERS: The critics would say people like Claybrook are trying to criminalize politics, to make a crime out of a lot of this stuff that is just really political activity. You know, horse trading. Scratch your back, scratch my back.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: If it's just we help each other in a bill, that's fine, Senator to Senator, Member to Member. But that's not what this is. This is the buying and selling of the Congress.
BILL MOYERS: You know, there's still a light and a fire in your eyes when you talk about these things. And yet you've been at this a quarter of a century.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, that's not very long.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you care so much?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: I care 'cause I want our government to work right. And I want to see the public served by the government. And the government can do that.And it really outrages me that there's this attack on the government, you know, bureaucracy and all the rest of it, when the government is what is in the organization of the citizenry. And it serves the citizenry-- it's supposed to serve the citizenry. And it shouldn't be the handmaiden of the big money system in this country.
BILL MOYERS: What can people who care about these issues do?
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Organize. The only thing that the public can really do is to organize. And that's what groups like ours try and help them do. That's what the Internet can help them do. They can look on web pages for Public Citizen or Common Cause or any of the others and try and find a group on the issue that they care about connect with them and become that public force. We're the specialists, in a way, those of us in Washington, DC. But without a constituency across the nation, we don't-- we have no power.
BILL MOYERS: You're the lobbyists for the public.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: We're the people's lobby. Right. But we need the people to raise their voice.