Recently, Newsweek found that the political action committees of five major recipients of federal bank bailout money have been donating to members of Congress, most of them on committees that oversee the banking industry. In other words, some taxpayer dollars meant to resolve the credit crisis are underwriting efforts to influence Congress.
The truth is, this is how business gets done in Washington. Legislators raise money from the industries that come under the purview of their committees, while donors contribute to those who wield the most influence over their interests. The chase for money — demeaning to both candidate and contributor — has gotten so far out of hand that it is beginning to threaten representative democracy itself.
I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that one step in the right direction is to make donations transparent. Voters should have instant access to charts that line up contributions to members with their votes and earmarks. If Congress wants to restore public confidence in its actions, that’s the direction it needs to head.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.