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The Bigger Pay-to-Play Picture

By Brent Budowsky
December 13, 2008

Editor’s Note: Longtime Washington insiders are expressing outrage over the crudeness of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich discussing pay-to-play payoffs in phone calls tape-recorded by the FBI.

But, except for the crudeness, how different is Blagojevich’s behavior from what goes on daily in Washington – or on Wall Street? Former Democratic congressional aide Brent Budowsky addresses that question in this guest essay:

Let’s ignore the righteous pundits who chortle sweet nothings about the scandal in Illinois and speak to a larger truth that they ignore.

The Illinois scandal is the tip of the iceberg of a culture of corruption that is usually done with more subtlety than Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Of course, the Clintons dished out pardons. Of course, McCain's campaign was run by lobbyists and foreign agents and he has raised much money from companies with business before his Senate Commerce Committee.

Of course, Barack Obama raised a small fortune from bundled money from the same Wall Street players whose lobbyists he refused to take money from.

Here is something most of you don’t know. In the Wall Street Journal poll that showed Obama’s popularity on issue after issue in the 60-70 percent range, when asked whether Obama would change the influence of lobbyists and special interests in Washington, the result was a tie, 47-47.

Think about this. Funny how none of the pundits discussed this one, eh?

Corruption is everywhere. Wall Street scandals proliferate like rabbits in heat. The banking crisis involves massive lying and fraud. A horrendous bankruptcy law passed with huge Republican support and far too many Democrats. There is even a recent study showing the level of cheating among teenagers is rising in school.

Rod Blagojevich was crude, dumb and no doubt corrupt. But I think of Don Henley's song, which said that people can steal more money with a briefcase than a gun.

It is easy to laugh, chortle and smirk at the fiasco in Illinois but much harder to speak truth to power about the corruption of money that is a daily occurrence on Wall Street and in Washington.

Meanwhile, there is a subtle corruption. Bank of America takes billions in the bailout, but does not lend most of that money to consumers or businesses. Yet the bank pursues mergers and acquisitions and lays off 35,000 more workers.

Eight trillion dollars has been used so far in the financial bailout, but how has that money been used? Not for the purpose it was intended. We can’t find out exactly, because banks refuse to tell us the full truth about their books and the Federal Reserve Board and Treasury Department refuse to tell us all the details.

There is a popular wave of anger that has begun to explode and will continue to explode. Neither party has a monopoly on virtue, and though Republican policies have been disastrous and scandal-ridden, Democrats do not exactly have clean hands.

Let’s have a serious discussion of how to reform this system. Perhaps some means of public finance of campaigns, though this is not a panacea and there are risks as well as rewards. Perhaps aggressive new lobbying reforms. Perhaps some limits on bundled money.

Let’s discuss these ideas without the illusions, partisanship or sophistry or the shallow bromides of easy condemnation of Blagojevich without an honest discussion of how pay to play is everywhere.

In the latest poll, the number not mentioned by the pundits or partisans I repeat again: On the issue of whether Obama would change the influence of special-interest money and lobbyists, he received his lowest number, a 47-47 percent tie.

Do we want an endless system of K Street Projects, in which the ruling party collects the dough from the special interests, and the money machine merely changes hands between elections? Or do we want change we can believe in, and if so, what change?

Brent Budowsky was an aide to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and to Rep. Bill Alexander, then the chief deputy whip of the House. He can be read in The Hill newspaper, where he is a columnist. He can be reached at

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