Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Paving the Potomac's Potholes

By Shawn Healy
My third installment of the "Pass the Pundits" series addresses the issue of government corruption, admittedly a more subjective topic, but particularly pertinent less than three years removed from the debacle in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, not to mention flawed execution of the Iraq War from the very beginning and the Jack Abramoff lobbyist scandal unfurled in 2006 that partially contributed to the GOP's mid-term defeat. Closer to home, Democratic fundraiser Tony Rezko was convicted of 16 counts of government corruption yesterday, emblematic of the bipartisan culture of corruption in Illinois. Americans, in many ways, are looking for competence from their elected officials, and Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama promise to change the tired ways of Washington rhetorically, if not in action.

On this issue, unlike the first two in this series, the two major party candidates mostly see eye-to-eye. Both lampoon lobbyists, seeking to restrict their influence even without each campaign organization. McCain, although advised by former lobbyists, recently adopted a tough ethics code that led to the departure of five close aides. Obama employs no current or former lobbyists, although several serve as unpaid advisers. He also claims to be the only candidate to refuse donations from lobbyists. This is probably true, though he did accept such contributions when he ran for the Illinois and U.S. Senate.

Both are sensitive to the issue of campaign finance reform, and have led separate efforts to alter the system over the past decade. McCain, you might remember, teamed with Democratic colleague Sen. Russell Feingold to pass comprehensive campaign finance reform in 2002, and made this the staple of his first run for president in 2000. Obama sought and delivered reforms at the state level, prohibiting personal use of campaign donations by state legislators and limiting gifts from lobbyists. He also passed a federal ethnics bill in partnership with Feingold to end corporate subsidization of congressional flights and trips, not to mention shedding light on lobbyists who bundle contributions to legislators. Obama reached across the aisle to work with Sen. Tom Cole to pass legislation mandating all federal grants, contracts, earmarks and loans be placed in a searchable database for public scrutiny.

At the same time, the candidates' reform-related records may be partially driven by their associations with the proverbial dark side of politics. McCain was a member of the infamous Keating Five, a group of senators that met with Charles Keating, an operator of a scandalous savings and loan, under the presumption of proffering preferential treatment for their patron. That said, McCain was cleared of the more serious charges tied to his peers and has spent much of the balance of his time in Washington rebuilding his image and attempting to modify what he sees as a broken system of elite interests corrupting policy.

Obama is tied to the aforementioned Rezko, and on a larger level, the notorious Daley Machine in Chicago. Rezko was one of Obama's political patrons throughout the early part of his political career, even as recent as his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate. In 2005, they collaborated on a questionable real estate deal through the purchase of adjacent properties and a land swap at less than market value. To his credit, Obama has donated as much as $80,000 of the cash that Rezko bundled for his campaigns to charity, and spoken candidly about his "bone-headed" real estate deal with the soon-to-be-imprisoned character.

These skeletons revealed, what do McCain and Obama prescribe to bring about change to a system of which Americans are universally disgusted? McCain, as articulated in my previous post, is perhaps Washington's foremost critic of pork barrel spending. Indeed, he has never sponsored such a project in his entire career (By contrast, last year, Obama requested $91 million of such targeted appropriations). McCain associates earmarks with special interests, not to mention bestowing unethical advantages to incumbents. He pledges to use to veto pen as president vigorously to stymie a process that has grown exponentially.

Obama does not pursue an absolutist path on this issue like his fall opponent, but he is a firm proponent of greater transparency for sponsors of earmarks, but also federal contracts and even legislation awaiting executive approval. He will invite public commentary on pending legislation, and end the "abuse" of no-bid contracts made famous in Iraq.

Obama, like McCain, champions himself as a campaign finance reformer. He supports expanded public financing of campaigns, in addition to free radio and television time for candidates. One caveat, however: Obama made a promise last fall to accept public financing, $85 million in total, for the general election segment of his presidential campaign if his opponent agreed to the same terms. Lo and behold, McCain is attempting to hold him to his word, but Obama has since danced away from his earlier position, suggesting that the large number of small donors to his campaign represent the equivalent of public financing. Whether you agree with this explanation or not, Obama has proven the most prolific political fundraiser in history, and McCain admittedly lags in this area. Their respective decisions are more of a product of this reality than anything else.

Regardless of who replaces President Bush in the Oval Office come January, a man who stands for more sunlight in government will open the shades drawn over many reaches of government the past eight years. For example, Obama promises virtual "fireside chats," or regular town hall meetings conducted by each of his cabinet members. McCain, on the other hand, proposes weekly question and answer sessions with Congress a la the British model involving the prime minister. Both seek to change the tone of partisan rancor that has encompassed the capital in recent years, while at the same time rooting out the special interests that threaten the very meaning of "government by the people, for the people." Here's hoping that either man sticks to his guns and makes rhetoric reality.

Note: I will be attending the First Amendment Institute in Fort Worth, TX, all of next week, so the "Pass the Pundits" series will return on Monday June 16.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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