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Commentary: If no one else will require ethical politicians, the voters should

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 15, 2010 - Seven United States representatives, who received campaign contributions from defense contractors after providing the contractors with hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks, were recently cleared of wrongdoing by the House Ethics Committee. The committee released a 305-page report stating that receipt of campaign contributions from an organization, even one that has benefited from official action, does not by itself constitute an ethics violation.

So long as the campaign contributions are independent from the receipt or sponsorship of earmarks, said the report, no ethics violation exists.

While it comes as no surprise that House members are shying away from adequately policing each other, it is not something the American people should tolerate. Criminal laws do exist to curb the illegal receipt of funds by public officials, but federal prosecution costs money, and without the smoking-gun evidence showing that a public official received funds in return for official action, public officials cannot be prosecuted. To compound the problem, the United States Supreme Court recently ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that the First Amendment prohibits government bans on political spending by corporations in elections.

What the American people are left with now is a House Ethics Committee that does not want to punish its own for actions that each committee member undoubtedly engages in, criminal laws that are hard to enforce, and a Supreme Court that has validated excessive campaign contributions from corporations.

Political campaigns are dominated by raising money. President Barack Obama raised more money than any presidential candidate before him; and if any people think that money doesn’t strongly impact a political campaign, they are incredibly naïve. Politicians know that money is the name of the game; and without limits on corporate contributions, politicians no longer need to care about the individuals they represent. Why bother with soliciting $500 from mom and pop when you can earmark taxpayer money for a corporation and receive $500,000?

We should not have to accept politicians using taxpayer money to keep their jobs.We should not have to accept the loss of our voice. President Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address included the famous phrase “…government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” He would probably be appalled to know that in America today, it is really a “government of the corporation, by the corporation, and for the corporation,” but that is our reality unless we do something about it.

Money is very important for politicians wanting to keep their jobs, but all the money in the world will not get you elected if people do not vote for you. And this is the lesson we need to teach our elected representatives. The three branches of government might give you a pass on raising campaign contributions and benefiting corporate interests, but the American people do not have to. The good of the collective people is more important than one person’s job and we have the power to instill this important lesson in those who we elect.

This concept transcends partisanship. Whatever your political identification may be, it is no doubt based on the American people's collective good, and it is time that we let our officials know that our vote and our interests far surpass those of corporate donors. I do believe that corporations have an important role in our country, but that role must not supersede the role of the people.

Matt Vianello is a third-year law student at Saint Louis University.