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The End of Influence

The Brennan Center’s Executive Director writes about the historical struggle for campaign finance reform.

Published: January 6, 2006

The New York Times
Friday, January 6, 2006

The End of Influence
By Michael Waldman

There are shivers running through official Washington, and it’s not just the January cold. The plea bargain by the lobbyist Jack Abramoff threatens to ensnare key lawmakers in scandal and potential legal troubles, including some Congressional leaders. The case, with its luxury skyboxes, politicians shilling for gambling interests and lobbyists stealing from Indian tribes, symbolizes Washington’s extreme cash-for-policy culture. But what can we do to ensure that, when the dust clears, things won’t just go back to politics as usual?

In the long struggle to strengthen democracy, reform sometimes follows scandal, but not always. Often appalling corruption has produced a yawn rather than a shriek. True progress comes only from rare “reform moments,” when accumulated public outrage combines with potent policy changes.

In the late 1800’s, everybody knew that campaigns were financed by patronage appointees, but it took the assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881 by a spurned job-seeker to spur civil service reform.

At the beginning of the last century, the rise of corporations bred new corruption, tainting even President Theodore Roosevelt. After it was revealed that Roosevelt had received large donations from the insurance industry in 1904, he felt his honor had been besmirched. “Sooner or later, unless there is a readjustment, there will come a riotous, wicked, murderous day of atonement,” he told a reporter, and eventually he won passage of the first federal law banning corporate campaign gifts.