As the Republican presidential candidates line up on stage for their next debate, it's unlikely they will be challenged about the corrosive effect of money on our body politic. Or how politicians use the revolving door to enrich themselves while most Americans bravely face economic calamity.
The Republicans are not the only ones likely to escape scrutiny on these matters. President Obama, who rode to power as the agent of serious change, now presides over an administration barely distinguishable from the corrupt predecessors he so effectively excoriated. Few rational observers would deny that our system has been run off the rails by a massive infusion of money and greed, but these matters are not the topic of polite conversation among the panjandrums of our nation's capital – and it's more than a shame. It's a missed opportunity.
The real elephant in the room at the next Republican debate is government corruption. But, it will be ignored, as it has been in the past. In the unlikely event the sponsoring television networks insist on impaneling a recently incarcerated former lobbyist as one of their debate interrogators, here are the five questions I would ask these aspiring leaders of the free world.
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He raked in millions as a lobbyist in D.C., then served time behind bars -- don't miss Jack Abramoff's eye-opening autobiography, "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Washington Corruption from America's Most Notorious Lobbyist"
- As president, would you use all your power to prohibit any lobbyist, federal contractor, federal grant recipient and anyone else seeking special favors from the federal government from contributing even one dollar to a federal election campaign, including yours; and, if all your opponents would agree – including President Obama – to eschew contributions from these special interests, would you forgo any such contributions starting tonight?
- When a lobbyist gives a congressman or federal employee a cup of coffee, is that bribery? How about a meal? How about a trip to Paris? Where do you draw the line on bribery? Many politicians claim that a fancy dinner or $2,000 political contribution "won't buy my vote." Do you believe that, or do you think that any gratuity causes an improper relationship between a public servant and a special interest?
- You have all been in the public eye for years, whether as a member of Congress (Gingrich, Santorum, Bachman, Paul), governor (Perry, Romney, Johnson, Huntsman) or lobbyist and talk-show host (Cain). Name something concrete you have done to try to end the obscenity of Congress passing laws that apply to the American people, but not to them; and as a public official, did you ever take special advantage of your privileged position to enrich yourself, such as through insider trading?
- Do you support federal or state office holders "cashing in" on their government service by becoming lobbyists, strategic advisers or consultants to lobbyists or parties seeking special treatment from the federal government? In the case of those candidates who have left government service, have you taken any payments from groups lobbying the federal government, regardless of whether you have lobbied directly on their behalf? If yes, do you think accepting of this cash reward for your government services renders you unfit to serve as our commander in chief?
- If elected, do you pledge to issue a lifetime ban on members of your administration from ever passing through the revolving door to cash in on their government service; and do you promise to push Congress to enact similar legislation barring their members and staff from converting their government service into private economic gain?
These questions cut to the core of the corruption in government that plagues our nation. The cozy relationship between monied interests – whether corporate, union or individual – and our elected officials has pushed our republic to the edge of ruin. Decades of profligate spending, encouraged and often instigated by the special interests, has left our nation in economic peril. Just last week, skilled lobbyists worked feverishly to derail the efforts of the supercommittee to pare back the federal budget, and thereby avert drastic cuts to our defense capacities. As the threat to their special-interest clients loomed on the horizon, scores of the most powerful and crafty Washington power players called in their ill-gotten chits and, putting those client interests about the national interest, stopped the supercommittee dead in its tracks.
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Washington doesn't get it. They think Americans don't really care if they sell our government to the highest bidder. Or if they become fabulously wealthy exploiting their public service. They are wrong. Americans are getting angry, and they are starting to pay attention. They sense that President Obama is just another politician, full of promises until it's time to deliver. They are searching for the right Republican to replace him in 2012. But, before they're willing to invest their hopes – let alone their votes – in another false agent of change, they want some hard answers. Whether anyone on the media panel will ask the right questions is another matter.