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While Running for the Democratic Presidential Nomination, Senator Barack Obama on Transparency and Limiting the Power of Special Interests
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“When it comes to reforming Washington … Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis had the right idea. Sixty years ago he said, ‘Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.’ Brandeis was a progressive responding to the excesses of the Gilded Age. Nearly a century later, we find Washington in need of a lot of sunlight and disinfectant….

I’m not perfect. In my current pres. campaign, I shall have to raise money, and still have relationships w/lobbyists. But at least people will know who those relationships are...”

Over a year before he became the Democratic candidate for President, Senator Barack Obama addressed the issue of lobbyists, special interest groups, and campaign financing.  Obama’s message was published in the Chicago Tribune on May 21, 2007.  Obama’s careful edits, with over 100 words and many strike-outs in his hand, likely came too late for the editorial page deadline of this major metropolitan newspaper. Most of the text Obama wished to be struck remained, and several phrases he did not strike through (noted below in parentheses) were removed, possibly by the editorial page editor.

BARACK OBAMA. Typed Manuscript with autograph corrections. [Chicago, Ill., ca. May 21, 2007]. 2 pp, 8 ½ x 11 in. With 112 handwritten words in Obama’s red ink and pencil and 3 holes punched at left edge of each sheet. Published on the “Commentary” page of the Chicago Tribune, May 21, 2007.

Inventory #22930       Price: $7,500

Transcript

Please note: Passages in [brackets] are Obama’s cross-outs. His handwritten additions are in CAPITALS. Comments on the difference between this draft and the final online published version are in (parentheses).

Headed in red ink by Obama: “LATEST DRAFT”

“When it comes to reforming Washington and limiting the power of special interests, [a man who died more than 60 years ago had exactly the right idea.] Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis HAD THE RIGHT IDEA. SIXTY YEARS AGO HE said, ‘Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.’ ”

“Brandeis was a progressive responding to the excesses of the Gilded Age. Nearly a century later, we find Washington in need of a lot of sunlight and disinfectant.”

“[Today, powerful special interests run Washington.] WE HAVE HEARD THE STORIES OF DELAY, ABRAMOWITZ AND The Republican Party’s infamous ‘K Street Project’ put lobbyists at the center of policymaking and political fundraising. BUT [AND] THE DOMINANCE [WE KNOW THAT] OF SPECIAL INTERESTS PRECEDES THIS AND EXTENDS WELL BEYOND THESE MOST EGGREGIOUS EXAMPLES. The drug and insurance industries alone have spent more than $1 billion on lobbying and campaign contributions in the last 10 years. [And] for the most part, they [have achieved the results they wanted] GOT WHAT THEY PAID FOR - LEGISLATION THAT CONSISTENTLY TILTED IN THEIR FAVOR. It’s no wonder THEN that, [last November,] Americans cast a strong vote for change.”

“In response, Democrats in the House and Senate, with significant Republican support, have adopted new restrictions on the power of lobbyists. But one significant reform remains undone: shedding sunlight on the practice of ‘bundling’ campaign contributions.”

“Under current campaign-finance rules, an individual lobbyist is limited to writing a personal check for a maximum of $2,300. But that’s where the bundling starts. A lobbyist can collect check after check from other individuals and deliver the entire bundle to a candidate for office. Sometimes those stacks contain $20,000, $100,000 or even $250,000. As the rules stand today, lobbyists have to only report their own contributions -- not the money they’ve raised from others. NOT ALL LOBBYISTS ARE MAKING CONTRIBUTIONS TO INFLUENCE POLICY. MANY DEVELOP RELATIONSHIPS W/LEGISLATORS - SUPPORT THEM BECAUSE BELIEVE THEY ARE THE BEST CANDIDATE. These lobbyists are delivering millions in bundled contributions to the very politicians from whom they are seeking favorable votes or legislation. That shouldn’t remain a secret. The public has a right to know.”

Obama has noted in the left margin of the next two paragraphs: “REPETITIVE.”

“It is no coincidence that the best bundlers are often granted the greatest access, and access is power in Washington. When the bundlers are lobbyists, we must require full disclosure because they and their clients have a financial stake in the outcome of specific legislation. That gets in the way of public officials doing the business of the people - all of the people, not just a few.”

[“We can’t stop individual lobbyists from raising money. But we certainly can make it clear to the public whom they are raising it for -- and from. This will help clarify the link between campaign cash and decisions made in Washington.”]

(In this draft, the words “That is why I proposed and” precede this paragraph; the six words were deleted from the final version.) “The Senate passed legislation last year that would make lobbyists disclose how much they bundle and whom they bundle it from. It would require quarterly reporting of all contributions that a lobbyist collected or arranged that total more than $200 in a calendar year. This includes not only campaign contributions, but also contributions to presidential libraries, inaugural committees and lawmakers’ charities. The law doesn’t call for a complete halt in bundling. It just calls on lobbyists who have a stake in the outcome of legislation to disclose that information to the public.”

“The House is about to vote on a similar measure. Some members of Congress - some in my own party - claim that this law is too tough. They say it puts us at a fundraising disadvantage just at the moment we’ve regained control of the House and Senate. But we shouldn’t forget how Democrats won a congressional majority - by promising sweeping ethics reform to change Washington and reduce the power of special interests. We need to deliver.”

“If an individual is lobbying for the big drug companies, we need to know if he or she is (“he or she is” is “they are” in this draft) bundling hundreds of thousands of dollars for those committee members. If a lobbyist works for the oil industry, we need to know if he was a Bush Pioneer. And if a defense contractor is raising lots of money for Armed Services Committee members, we need to know that too.”

“To set an example in the 2008 presidential election, I am refusing to accept campaign contributions from registered lobbyists, (“lobbyists who bundle” is in this draft but not in the final version) political-action committees, and I won’t take contributions bundled by lobbyists. (In this typed draft, Obama had included: “I’m also reporting any bundled contributions that I receive” adding) I’M NOT PERFECT. IN MY CURRENT PRES. CAMPAIGN, I SHALL HAVE TO RAISE MONEY, AND STILL HAVE RELATIONSHIPS W/LOBBYISTS. BUT AT LEAST PEOPLE WILL KNOW WHO THOSE RELATIONSHIPS ARE. STILL NEED MORE FAR REACHING PUBLIC FINANCING. (The next sentence is not in this draft: “I’m also reporting any contributions that are bundled - whether it’s from a small-town doctor or a chief executive officer.”)  If we can open up the system and pull aside the curtain of secrecy, then we might be able to start changing the way Washington works.”

Obama’s last sentence, which he crossed out in this draft, is not in the final version: [“Transparency is the road to reform in Washington. Requiring the disclosure of bundled contributions from lobbyists can help lead the way.”] This is the only Obama edit reflected in the final printed version.

The following day, May 22, the Tribune printed the following clarification:  

“FOR THE RECORD… CORRECTIONS AND CLARIFICATIONS. In his column on the Commentary page on Monday, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) wrote: “To set an example in the 2008 presidential election, I am refusing to accept campaign contributions from registered lobbyists, political-action committees, and I won’t take contributions bundled by lobbyists.” A spokesman for his campaign clarified that the policy of Obama’s campaign is to not accept contributions from registered federal lobbyists. He is accepting contributions from registered state lobbyists.”

<http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2007-05-21/news/0705200332_1_bundling-lobbyists-campaign-contributions>

Historical Background

The practice of bundling, where lobbyists collect checks from individuals or companies, allowed a single donor (the lobbyist) to give far in excess of the legal individual limits.

As a relatively unknown one-term Senator of mixed race, with the middle name “Hussein” in the wake of the Iraq War, Barack Obama could not have been more of an outsider. The internet had not been a major factor in campaigns before, but his organization developed web tools to build support and a ground game, and accept money online. One of the hallmarks of his strategy was to solicit many small donations—those that fell well below the federal campaign contribution limits—from a wide swath of people. With this tactic in mind, the practices against which he rails here were less important to him and his campaign. But he realistically understood that there would be lobbyists and there would be big money, but with transparency.

Obama built an unlikely coalition to defeat establishment candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, and used his internet-driven coalition to defeat Arizona Senator John McCain and take the White House. Issues of fundraising and transparency and special interests remained a central topic throughout his presidency and the 2016 election.

Provenance

Wendy Button, who had been a speechwriter for Barack Obama. Button had also written speeches for Michelle Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Kerry, and John Edwards. However, on October 28, 2008, in an blog article entitled “So long, Democrats,” she announced that she was voting for John McCain.


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