Friday, February 15, 2008

What has Barack done?

I'm starting to understand more about the question of what has Barack done. I started my own career as a community organizer, and very few people understand what I did then or what impact it had on my life. In many respects I think Barack is experiencing the same lack of understanding - as catalysts for change you don't often have the programmatic victory numbers that define other successes. You are basically mobilizing people to enact their own power, something our country as has long misunderstood.

I assuredly don't have his credentials, but I do have a few of my own. After completing my undergrad degree, I studied community organizing at CTWO in Oakland Ca. I left with grand ideas of mobilizing central city residents, and in some cases had tremendous experiences which led me to a career in non-profit management. I've been helping people my entire career, but I imagine someone would ask me to, what have you done?

I could give them a laundry list of achievements with the work I've done, none of it high profile, none of it glamorous, none of it front page news. However, the lives that have been impacted and the legacy of the work is undeniable. There are agencies throughout the Midwest and East Coast that have benefited from my work without much fanfare. His career path is just the same, when it comes to his decision to pursue a non-traditional path to find his calling. I don't fault him for that.

According to a David Moberg article: In 1985, freshly graduated from Columbia University and working for a New York business consultant, Barack Obama decided to become a community organizer. Though he liked the idea, he didn't understand what the job involved, and his inquiries turned up few opportunities.

Then he got a call from Jerry Kellman, an organizer working on Chicago's far South Side for a community group based in the churches of the region, an expanse of white, black and Latino blue-collar neighborhoods that were reeling from the steel-mill closings. Kellman was looking for an organizer for the new Developing Communities Project (DCP), which would focus on black city neighborhoods.

Obama, only 24, struck board members as "awesome" and "extremely impressive," and they quickly hired him, at $13,000 a year, plus $2,000 for a car--a beat-up blue Honda Civic, which Obama drove for the next three years organizing more than twenty congregations to change their neighborhoods.

Despite some meaningful victories, the work of Obama--and hundreds of other organizers--did not transform the South Side or restore lost industries. But it did change the young man who became the junior senator from Illinois in 2004, and it provides clues to his worldview as he bids for the Democratic presidential nomination.

I would advise everyone to look and investigate for themselves, and to hold their own societal impact up for scrutiny. What would anyone say that you have done? What would a nation think of your contributions? I may not be running for office, but I'm thinking more and more about my own legacy. I think I'll rest easy about my contributions and I believe that Barack will be able to as well. This is a different type of politics, a different type of reason to be involved.

Further, the verbage on his website is convincing to me.

Throughout his political career, Barack Obama has fought for open and honest government. As an Illinois State Senator, he helped pass the state’s first major ethics reform bill in 25 years. And as a U.S. Senator, he has spearheaded the effort to clean up Washington in the wake of numerous scandals.

In the first two weeks of the 110th Congress, Senator Obama helped lead the Senate to pass the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act, a comprehensive ethics and lobbying reform bill, by a 96-2 vote. This landmark bill was signed into law by the President in September 2007.

The final bill that the Congress passed closely mirrored and drew key provisions in a bill (S. 230) that Senators Obama and Feingold introduced in January 2007 to establish a “gold standard” for reform. Among the provisions in the Obama-Feingold bill that were adopted by the Senate and the House were: strict bans on receiving gifts and meals from lobbyists; new rules to slow the revolving door between public and private sector service; and an end to the subsidized use of corporate jets.

Most importantly, the final reform bill contained a provision pushed by Senator Obama to require the disclosure of contributions that registered lobbyists “bundle” – that is, collect or arrange – for candidates, leadership PACs, and party committees. The New York Times called this provision “the most sweeping” in the bill, and the Washington Post said: “No single change would add more to public understanding of how money really operates in Washington.”

In January 2006, Senator Obama laid the groundwork for the reform package that the Senate eventually adopted a year later. He started building a coalition for reform by helping to author the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act introduced with 41 Democratic sponsors. The bill proposed lengthening the cooling off period to two years for lawmakers who seek to become lobbyists and requiring immediate disclosure as soon as public servants initiate any job negotiations to become lobbyists. The bill would have opened conference committee meetings to the public and required that all bills be posted on the Internet for 24 hours before they can be voted on by the Senate. Finally, the bill would have ended all lobbyist-funded gifts, meals, and travel and strengthened the Senate office that monitors lobbyist disclosure forms. All of these provisions were incorporated in either identical or similar form into the final bill passed in 2007.

In addition, Senator Obama sponsored three other ethics-related bills in the 109th Congress that went even further on ethics, earmarks, and legislative transparency. By the time of the 110th Congress, his ideas for reform had gained support, and many of his proposals were passed by the Senate.

  • The Congressional Ethics Enforcement Commission Act
  • The bill would create an outside ethics commission to receive complaints from the public on alleged ethics violations by members of Congress, staff, and lobbyists. The commission would have the authority to investigate complaints and present public findings of fact about possible violations to the House and Senate Ethics Committee and Justice Department. By taking the initial fact finding out of the hands of members of Congress, who are often reluctant to investigate their colleagues, the bill ensures prompt and fair disposition of public complaints.

    To avoid manipulation of the commission for political purposes, any person filing a complaint that they knew to be false would be subject to a fine and/or imprisonment. No complaints could be filed against a member of Congress for 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before a general election.

    The bill was widely endorsed by reform groups. According to Common Cause: "[T]his legislation would do more to reform ethics and lobbying than any other piece of legislation introduced thus far because it goes to the heart of the problem: enforcement." Public Citizen praised Senator Obama "for having the courage to challenge the business-as-usual environment on Capitol Hill and introduce far-reaching legislation." Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington stated: "This is the first bill that deals seriously with the lack of oversight and enforcement in the existing congressional ethics process. . . . This bill will help restore Americans' confidence in the integrity of Congress.

  • The Transparency and Integrity in Earmarks Act
  • This bill would shed light on the almost 16,000 earmarks that were included in spending bills in 2005. Under the bill, all earmarks, including the name of the requestor and a justification for the earmark, would have to be disclosed 72 hours before they could be considered by the full Senate. Senators would be prohibited from advocating for an earmark if they have a financial interest in the project or earmark recipient. And, earmark recipients would have to disclose to an Office of Public Integrity the amount that they have spent on registered lobbyists and the names of those lobbyists.

  • The Curtailing Lobbyist Effectiveness through Advance Notification, Updates, and Posting Act (The CLEAN UP Act)
  • This bill aims to improve public access to information about all legislation, including conference reports and appropriations legislation, in particular after hurried, end-of-session negotiations. Conference committee meetings and deliberations would have to be open to the public or televised, and conference reports would have to identify changes made to the bill from the House and Senate versions. Finally, no bill could be considered by the full Senate unless the measure has been made available to all Senators and the general public on the Internet for at least 72 hours.

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