Our government seems more and more isolated from the lives of most Americans.
Financial scandals in Maine and in Washington have made the news recently. It is worth thinking about what they tell us about our political system.
A handful of sleazy characters tried to use Maine's system of public financing of elections to steal a few dollars from the public treasury.
They were caught and will be punished. They had no impact on our elections, except to sow some confusion in a few districts. Their ability to get public money for bogus campaigns does show some loopholes in the way the public financing is run, but should not be taken as evidence of fundamental problems.
Maine's public financing laws are a wonderful innovation that allows our neighbors, who are not themselves wealthy, to run for office. Public financing levels the political field, at least somewhat, so that personal wealth or connections to wealth do not determine who can get their name and message out to all Mainers.
We should be proud to live in a state where fairness is written into our political system. There will always be a minority who try to abuse the laws for personal profit, but we must not allow them to distract us from our efforts to create a responsive and responsible government.
The scandals surrounding Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff demonstrate what happens when we allow money to buy political influence. DeLay, the Texas representative who became House majority leader, used his ability to raise enormous sums of money to gain power in Washington. Recent news reports have revealed that he has also used this money to fund a lavish lifestyle far beyond the means of most Americans.
DeLay corrupted our national politics in two ways: He got rich through being a "public servant," and he helped those who control great wealth to buy influence in Congress. Abramoff was the necessary middleman, promising to deliver political favors from our elected officials to those who paid up.
Some in Congress sold their votes. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California admitted receiving more than $2 million in bribes from military contractors. Perhaps other members of Congress will be indicted for such criminal behavior. But the corruption of our government goes beyond those who just sold their votes for cash.
The Abramoff-DeLay scandal demonstrates more generally how money corrupts the political process on which we as citizens depend. People and organizations with money can buy face time with government officials, can buy them golf trips to expensive resorts, can contribute to their favorite charities. Not all these lobbyists represent shady causes. The most prestigious universities hire lobbying firms to ensure that appropriations bills include large government earmarks to fund buildings, salaries and research projects. What unites the sleazy and the upstanding is the use of money to buy notice in Washington.
Just to get elected seems to require great wealth.
Michael Bloomberg was able to win the New York City mayor's race with his own billions. Both parties are pursuing the richest people in America to become candidates for office. It is no coincidence that in both of our last two presidential elections, featuring George Bush, Al Gore and John Kerry, the candidates came from America's wealthiest families.
Those of us without sufficient funds to send a congressman to the Caribbean for a "fact-finding" vacation are left out in the cold. Our daily concerns, like getting enough heating oil, paying for health care, insuring that public transportation systems work, keeping our food and air free from harmful chemicals, take second place to what the high rollers with deep pockets want.
The increasing ability of big money to buy big influence is one reason why our government seems ever more isolated from the lives of most Americans.
That brings me back to Maine. Our little state government is grappling with the real issues in our lives every day. The solutions so far, like Dirigo Health, may not be perfect, but they go far beyond what is coming out of Washington. Our elected Maine officials, because of our system of public financing and much higher ethical standards, do work for us. Our congressional representatives from both parties are untainted by the Washington scandals. The blind pursuit of big money has not yet corrupted Maine politics.
We have much to be proud of. We also have much work to do in leading the nation out of the smelly morass our national political leaders have created.
Steve Hochstadt teaches history at Bates College. He can be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org