Everyone Wants to 'Fix' Washington

The more the candidate seems like an outsider, the more extreme the proposed solution — from running the lobbyists out of town to "taking Washington apart and putting it back together."

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And the top issue in the presidential race keeps shifting. It's the economy. No, it's the war. No, it's healthcare. But some issues never go away. NPR's Peter Overby has a reality check on one them - changing Washington.

PETER OVERBY: Everybody is running against that corrupt, complacent city that guards its privileges while ignoring the will of the people. For Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, change is largely about reigning in the lobbyists and special interests. Obama says change is a hallmark of his career. He was a leader on last year's Senate ethics reforms.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): Transparency and accountability, getting the American people involved, that's how we're gonna bring about change. That's why I want to be President of the United States, to respect the power of the American people to bring about change.

OVERBY: And here's Hillary Clinton talking about what it would take to reform the healthcare system.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): I think that we have to break the lock of the special interests.

OVERBY: Both candidates have detailed plans to change Washington. Clinton, for instance, says she won't let former cabinet officials lobby her administration, and she promises to eliminate corporate welfare. Obama won't take campaign money from lobbyists. He wants much more disclosure in government and public financing of congressional campaigns. And one Republican - in fact, the leading the Republican - John McCain, is also on the ethics reform bandwagon. At one GOP debate he invoked the name of a prominent Republican lobbyist whom he brought down.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Ask Jack Abramoff if I'm an insider in Washington. You'd probably have to go during visiting hours in the prison.

OVERBY: But away from the presidential debate, lobbyists have some surprising allies.

Mr. BOB EDGAR (Common Cause): Lobbyists are not evil.

OVERBY: This contrarian is Bob Edgar, former Congressman, now president of Common Cause. That's one of the most vocal of good government groups in Washington. He says lobbyists actually educate the politicians in important ways about the complexities of government.

Mr. EDGAR: The problem is that education is often connected with how much money they can put on the table.

OVERBY: The Republican candidates as a group don't define change as an ethics issue so much as a budget issue. Even McCain rarely mentioned his signature piece of legislation, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. But when it comes to getting federal spending under control, the Republicans are all for change. Here's Mitt Romney in this week's debate.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): Ronald Reagan would say as I do that Washington is broken, and like Ronald Reagan, I'd go to Washington as an outsider, not owing favors, not lobbyists on every elbow. I'd be able to be the independent outsider that Ronald Reagan was, and he brought change to Washington.

OVERBY: Romney likes to say he would take Washington apart and put it back together, the kind of language you'd expect from someone who made his fortune as a corporate turnaround specialist. At an earlier debate, Mike Huckabee said Washington no longer cares about ordinary Americans.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas; Presidential Candidate): It's why you need a president who's lived out here in the heartland of America rather than lived in the incredible rarified air of Washington, D.C.

OVERBY: Romney, Huckabee and McCain all say they want a line item veto, the power to reject individual provisions of a bill passed by Congress. The only trouble is, the Constitution specifically prohibits that. Congress tried sidestepping the Constitution back in the 1990s. It gave President Bill Clinton the power to send individual provisions back to Capitol Hill for a revote. The Supreme Court threw out that law, but now a modified version of it is back.

Mr. DAVID PRIMO (Political Scientist): There are disputes about whether or not that still would be a violation of the Constitution in that it gives the President a legislative function.

OVERBY: Political scientist David Primo at the University of Rochester is a scholar of the line item veto. First, he says, would Congress give up power? And this...

Mr. PRIMO: The line item veto is greatly oversold as a way to reduce federal spending. If you anticipate that the President is going to slice several projects from a budget, you might pack that budget with even more projects.

OVERBY: Thus undermining the entire exercise. So the line item veto might be one change that isn't going to come.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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