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Voters must elect reformers to clean up U.S. Congress

If your car breaks down and someone recommends a mechanic to repair it, the first question you are likely to ask is: Can I trust the mechanic? Today, our nation’s economic engine has stalled and it is unclear that we can trust those in Congress responsible for getting us on the road to recovery.

Eight U.S. House of Representatives members from both parties are currently under investigation for raising money from financial services lobbyists just before voting on the financial reform bill. These days newspaper headlines read more like congressional rap sheets: Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) for illegal investments, Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) for working with indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Charlie Rangel (D-Harlem) for accepting illegal gifts.

It is no wonder that only 11 percent of Americans trust Congress today. Without ethical leadership in Congress, our political process will remain broken and incapable of addressing urgent challenges, from creating jobs to reforming our immigration system.

That is why I am proposing comprehensive legislation that will create independent ethics oversight, curb conflicts of interests and eliminate the influence of lobbyists.

First, with unethical behavior pervasive in today’s politics, we need a centralized ethics regulator with independent authority to investigate and punish questionable conduct by congressional members. Today, members of Congress must police themselves — which is why they do not. I believe we should create a new Office of Public Integrity, a proposal that was killed from then-Sen. Obama’s 2007 ethics reform legislation.

Right now members who violate ethics rules have a better chance of being struck by lighting than being investigated for their conduct. The rare punishment for blatant ethics violations is never more than a painless slap on the wrist. We need a non-partisan regulator to enforce a basic, common-sense principle: If members violate ethics rules, they should be removed from office. After all, it is a standard that tens of millions of working Americans are held to every day.

Next, we must curb the conflicts of interest that favor personal profits and political points over solutions and reform. At the same time that BP’s deep-sea drilling permit was under review or the Wall Street reform bill was being negotiated, members of Congress maintained hundreds of millions of dollars in personal investments in the same companies they were in the process of regulating.

While peddling poisonous subprime loans, dozens of congressional members actually betted against the housing market prior to the 2008 crash and their investments outperformed the market by over 12 percent. We have corporate insider trading provisions to prevent profiting on proprietary information, but those same rules do not extend to back-room negotiations by elected officials on new regulations that affect entire industries.

In Congress, I will introduce legislation mandating that members of Congress place their personal investments in a blind trust while serving the public and subject them to tough insider trading provisions. It is unethical to profit at the public’s expense and it is a practice I will fight to put an end to in Congress.

Finally, I will fight to eliminate the influence of lobbyists and push for the end of the broken campaign finance system as we know it. In 2009 alone, more than 13,000 registered lobbyists spent more than $3.5 billion influencing elected officials on legislation, the highest amount ever recorded. And every year, members of Congress leave public service for lucrative jobs as lobbyists.

It is simply wrong to treat the opportunity to shape legislation that affects millions of lives as a bargaining chip for personal profit — but that is what many members of Congress have decided to do. I have not taken a penny of special interest, corporate or political action committee money during my campaign, and I believe all PAC contributions should be banned. It is time for a new system of publicly financed campaigns to reclaim our elections and our Congress from special interests.

Being a member of Congress is not simply a job or professional achievement: It is a solemn responsibility. The American people deserve nothing less than exemplary professional conduct from their elected officials.

Reshma Saujani

Candidate

U.S. House of Representatives

Astoria

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