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Lobbyists and lawmakers, one big family

By Nick Nyhart
March 29, 2014 -- Updated 1441 GMT (2241 HKT)
Nick Nyhart says money does most of the talking in Congress.
Nick Nyhart says money does most of the talking in Congress.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The American people do not like Congress at historic levels and believe money rules
  • 78 members of Congress can count federally registered lobbyists as family members
  • 25% of the $6 billion donated to candidates came from one ten-thousandth of the population
  • Politicians don't listen to those unable to write big checks, who are left out of process

Editor's note: Nick Nyhart is president and CEO of Public Campaign, which advocates for reform in the U.S. money and politics system.

(CNN) -- The American people do not like Congress -- and they don't like Congress at historic levels. Gallup polling showed that only 12% of the American people approved of Congress in February. And it's easy to see why.

Americans think members of Congress have no interest in listening to them. According to a Public Campaign/Democracy Corps poll, they believe politicians' priorities are first and foremost special interest groups, then campaign contributors, party leaders and the media. listening to their own consciences and their constituents tied for dead last.

Nick Nyhart
Nick Nyhart

This isn't cynicism. It's perfectly rational.

Think about what we see every day on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress using elective office as little more than a gateway job to something more lucrative on Wall Street or K Street. There's a constantly revolving door of Hill staffers cycling in and out of congressional jobs and high-paying gigs at industry lobby shops.

We've all known a cozy relationship exists between legislators and lobbyists. But often they're in the same family. As CNN's Drew Griffin reported for "AC360º," 78 members of Congress can count federally registered lobbyists as family members. Those lobbyists number 100, and according to congressional watchdog Legistorm, they have worked on lobbying contracts worth $2 billion.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi promotes the finance reform \
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi promotes the finance reform "Government by the People Act" on February 5.

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Agriculture Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is married to a lobbyist for Kraft Foods, a company that lobbied in 2013 on farm and agriculture bills. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's son and son-in-law have lobbied Congress on a variety of issues. And this week, Reid faced questions about a payment to his granddaughter for "gifts" for his campaign donors -- but he since said he was returning the money to his campaign.

The personal conflicts of interest for lawmakers are only exacerbated by another big problem in Washington: Our pay-to-play campaign finance system.

A smaller and smaller portion of our population has a bigger and bigger share of the influence over Congress. In the 2012 election cycle, a full 25% of the $6 billion donated to political candidates and committees came from just one ten-thousandth of the U.S. population, according to a Sunlight Foundation analysis. That's roughly the number of people in one New York City ZIP code.

It means members of Congress are increasingly dialing for dollars or spending time with people who can write maxed-out checks to their campaigns. Those aren't people back in their districts.

We've all known a cozy relationship exists between legislators and lobbyists. But often they're in the same family.
Nick Nyhart

They're lobbyists in Washington and bankers in New York. So far in 2014, the Washington metro area is the biggest giver to campaigns -- listed above all the states -- even though the residents of the District of Columbia have no voting representative.

The system creates a political inequality that leaves those unable to write big checks left out. It's not what our Founding Fathers had in mind. We need to return to a government that is truly of, by and for the people, not bought and paid for by big money donors and special interests.

There are ways we can turn the tide and get back to the kind of government we the people deserve. We need to strengthen revolving-door policies to make it harder for members of Congress and their staffs to shuffle in and out of Hill offices and swanky jobs in industry lobby firms.

We need to enact stronger conflict-of-interest standards for family members of our elected officials. And most importantly, we need to have a campaign finance system that enhances the power of ordinary citizens through small donor-driven public financing of elections.

Two bills recently introduced in Congress show us the path forward.

In the House of Representatives, Democrat Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland has introduced the Government by the People Act, and in the Senate, Democrat Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois has introduced the Fair Elections Now Act.

Both bills would use a refundable tax credit and matching funds on small donations to help lessen the influence of big money in our elections and empower everyday people.

Candidates for Congress could forgo the constant fundraising from wealthy donors and special interest lobbyists, avoid the perception of being in their pockets and focus on representing the interests of their constituents. In other words, to do the jobs that they're elected to do in the first place. In New York, a campaign to win similar legislation in that scandal-ridden state is just a handful of votes from passage.

The American people have are fed up and don't trust Congress. It's time to turn that anger into action by getting behind efforts to fix our broken system with common sense solutions. If we do, we can once again have a government that represents exactly what our founders intended: we the people.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nick Nyhart.

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