DES MOINES — Two former Iowa congressmen on Thursday decried the hyper-partisanship in Washington and called for a populist effort to reduce the influence of money in politics that forces incumbents to focus more on fundraising and pleasing special interests than doing what’s best for America.
Former Reps. Jim Leach, a Republican living in Iowa City, and Berkley Bedell, a Democrat living in Spirit Lake, said Congress was a congenial place when they were serving, a place where Democrats and Republicans generally worked across party lines to craft consensus legislation intended to address problems and improve citizens’ lives.
But that’s no longer true, said Bedell, 97, who represented his western Iowa district from 1975 to 1987, and Leach, 75, who spent 30 years in the U.S House representing eastern Iowans until 2007.
“Our system is absolutely broken,” Bedell told Iowans who attended a roundtable discussion about finding bipartisan solutions to fix Washington. The session was sponsored by the Issue One action nonpartisan advocacy program as part of its national Fix Politics Now campaign.
“Absolutely, money is running our politics,” added Bedell, a businessman. “We’ve got a government that is there to serve the rich rather than there to serve the people, in my opinion. It’s a heartbreaker what has happened since I was back there.”
Leach traced many of the problems confronting the political system to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision, which granted corporations and other private entities the First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence public elections and prohibited any election laws that would regulate their spending.
He said Iowa has a “fantastic” progressive tradition and that he hopes Iowans play a lead role in forging a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United and undo many of the bad effects that have put political parties ahead of the nation’s interests.
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“It’s going to take a populist movement to bring this sort of thing to pass,” Leach told the lunchtime gathering. “Getting big money out of politics is a mission that nobody in this country should shy away from.
“Everybody knows that something’s gone haywire. Everybody knows something’s not working,” he added. “Never has a country been more divided for less reason. This is all correctable.”
Leach offered a list of model guidelines he referred to as his “Ten Commandments” to re-empower American citizenship.
The “commandments” call for more civility, less polarization and for making a “hate-free” nation “our common goal.”
“Polarization is the antithesis to the American way,” he said. “Politicians should respect their opponents. They are rivals, not enemies.
“Indeed, elected officials of differing parties should consider themselves teammates in advancing the public interest. Dysfunctionality is never a credible option.”
Bedell said he spent $86,000 in his first congressional campaign but now it costs well over $1 million to run for Congress.
Candidates, he said, are constantly having to raise money in a way that distracts them from their tasks and makes them beholden to big-money donors.
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“I don’t remember all the people that gave me $20, but let me tell you, if they gave me $20,000, I would have remembered it very well,” he said.
“We’ve got a government that is run by money,” Bedell noted. “It seems to me you ought to really care that we have a government that functions the way a government is supposed to function in a democracy, and I don’t think we have that today whether you’re a Republican or whether you’re a Democrat.”
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