February 24, 2006


Clean politics

Are the words “clean politics” an oxymoron? It would seem so today with the scandals in Washington.

Unfortunately, such scandals have not been rare in our history. They seem to pop up with too much regularity, enough to make the general public cynical enough to think that most politicians—whether Republicans or Democrats—are on the take.

It’s unfortunate that political campaigns have become so expensive that those seeking political offices—or those intent on retaining political offices—must expend inordinate amounts of time fundraising. Money has come to dominate candidates’ thinking far too much.

That leads to attempts to limit the amount of money people or organizations can contribute to candidates—and we approve of those attempts. Unfortunately, those making the laws about what is and isn’t ethical when it comes to fundraising are the same people who at the same time are attempting to raise as much money as possible.

Lobbyists often have huge amounts of funds to spend to try to influence legislation. They too often use those funds to buy legislators, contributing generously to his or her campaigns, hoping that the legislators will vote in the lobbyists’ favor. The legislators then, having accepted the money, find it difficult indeed to vote against what the lobbyists want.

Naturally, it’s not only at the national level that money and politics become nearly synonymous. Lobbyists currying favors operate at the state level, too.

All this has made “lobbyist” a dirty word, and that’s unfortunate. In a democracy, it’s important for all citizens, and groups of citizens, to be able to try to convince legislators to pass legislation in which those citizens are interested. That is exactly what the Indiana Catholic Conference, for example, does for the Catholic Church in Indiana. Citizens must always be free to try to influence legislation. Legislators are, after all, representing us.

Lobbyists become dirty, though, when they try to buy legislators rather than merely try to convince them that what they want is best for the common good. Ethical lobbyists say that they approve of laws or rules that limit the favors they can give to legislators, but that too often legislators demand contributions.

Despite the cynicism toward politicians and lobbyists that exists today, we are convinced (we hope not naively) that most politicians are ethical. We continue to believe that most of them enter public life because they believe that they can make a worthwhile contribution to society. Public life is a noble profession, and those who enter that profession must often make enormous sacrifices of time and energy to serve the common good.

The late Pope John Paul II once wrote: “Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all.” Society cannot function without such people.

Regrettably, today many good men and women who might feel called to the noble profession of a politician decline to follow that call precisely because politics has become so dirty or because it involves too much inquiry into their private lives. That’s a pity.

Yes, we must clean up politics. The electorate must demand it. There must be realistic limits put on fundraising and what lobbyists may and may not do to influence legislators and legislation. Such proposals have been suggested, just as laws have been passed. Too often, though, those laws have had built-in loopholes.

However, just the fact that some politicians and lobbyist Jack Abramoff have been disgraced because of their corruption shows that ethical rules and laws do work.

We suggest that good citizens overcome their cynicism about politics, and encourage good men and women to enter public life. The best way to eliminate corrupt politicians is to replace them with incorruptible ones. Then, somehow, we must take the steps necessary to stop leading politicians into temptation.

Clean politics is possible. We must demand it.

— John F. Fink


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