I want to tell you a secret about what really happens in Washington. You won't hear about it in the news or even hear it mentioned at your congressman's local town-hall meeting. The secret involves money, power, and influence. It's an insider's game, played in tight-knit circles of power.
I call it the "dollar dash." Members of Congress host fundraisers - located just off the Capitol grounds - attended by Washington's most influential and well-financed lobbyists. A $1,000 campaign contribution is the entrance fee and a guarantee that "the congressman appreciates your support and will be sure to keep in mind your positions." In between sips of wine and promise-making handshakes, the lawmakers sprint to the capitol for votes and scurry back to the fundraisers for more contributions.
The congressman's thoughts are on the election, the flight home, and his children. But his staff reminds him that his poll numbers are low and he needs money for eleventh-hour ads. He's trapped.
Both the lawmakers and special interest groups are caught in a system that rewards compromise and punishes independence. Money is what wins elections, the consultants say. Who has the big money? Special-interests. The money comes with expectations, however. Once elections are won, lobbyists expect a return on their investment. And ultimately, the American family pays the costly price of the system.
Who has more access? Who wins the congressman's ear? The house wife's phone call or the lobbyist's campaign contribution? A constituent may forget about a bad vote, but a lobbyist's memory is refreshed by computer data bases tracking voting records. Lawmakers can either choose to align their vote with the special interest or risk being cut off the donor list.
The system is broke and the priorities are out of balance. But both the Senate and House have failed to fix the problem. Earlier this month the Senate lost an opportunity to pass legislation to overhaul our failed system and on Friday the House postponed votes on several overhaul packages. By refusing to work together for a much needed clean-up, the Republicans and Democrats have reinforced the public's perception that asking political leaders to reform campaign laws is like asking the fox to guard the chicken coop.
The people don't believe it will happen and the politicians fear a compromise would threaten their source of campaign money.
Despite the partisan posturing, a majority of Congress agree on many core principles essential to reform, such as abolishing or restricting soft money - the sophisticated money-laundering that filters dollars through political parties without regulation or limitations.
A ban would stop the tidal wave of corporate and union money that is flooding into party war chests, often illegally, for use directly in specific campaigns and media buys. Soft money allows outside anonymous sources to buy attack ads. Anonymity is dangerous because it eliminates accountability.
But, the final passage of a campaign reform bill hinges on a compromise measure to provide union and corporate workers freedom from paying member dues for political purposes. There is more to unions than politics. Workers who disagree with their union's politics must either pay to support those politics or leave the union. This is wrong.
I've introduced federal legislation similar to Washington state's Initiative 134, the Fair Campaign and Elections Act, which I drafted and voters passed in 1992. Initiative 134 requires unions to receive written consent from their members before using their membership dues for political purposes - an "opt-in" proposal. My congressional proposal would retain this requirement for new members. But it would also allow existing union members to stay in their union while affirmatively "opting-out" of paying the portion of their dues for political purposes.
Congress can remain committed to principles of free speech and fairness while also ensuring the healthy future of our democracy. Returning power to the people is more than an empty campaign slogan, and Congress has failed in its opportunity to actually do it.
Under the current system, the sound of the lobbyists tearing off another check is louder than the voices of the American people. Campaign contributions must not become user-fees for participation in our democracy.
Later tonight, the fundraisers will continue, and the campaign checks will be deposited. Everyone expects and accepts this behavior from our lawmakers. But it doesn't have to be this way. You're the boss. Can you imagine what would happen to our government if lawmakers found out that you know special-interest money is diluting your voice in your government? Can you imagine if the only special interest was you and your family's interests? Now, that's genuine campaign reform.
* Linda Smith is a Republican congresswoman from Washington state.