Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Stop Pay-to-Play? Not so Fast

I have a feeling this won’t be my most popular post on Young Philly Politics. But, in the spirt of open debate, I'm going to give it a shot.

The Philly blogosphere has been buzzing about an online petition supporting Councilman Michael Nutter’s package of ethics reform bills. His bills require full disclosure by city agencies granting no-bid contracts and also place limits on campaign contributions.

Given the prevalent corruption at all level of Philadelphia city government, this legislation seems like common sense. Of course, Nutter’s package fell one vote short of passage. Many people are understandably upset with council’s inaction.

However, I still can’t get too fired up about pay-to-play legislation. Nepotism, corruption and patronage are a part of politics. In fact, organizing politically is one of the only ways traditionally marginalized communities have been able to access jobs, education, city services and other benefits of social policy.

Without a doubt, the Street Administration has been corrupt. But have it been any more or less corrupt than Rendell, Goode, or Rizzo? I don’t particularly think so. I know some consider it a sin to criticize Saint Ed, but does anyone doubt he has done some major favors for big donors? A prime example is the massive tax breaks given to Comcast Corporation to build a new headquarters. If that’s not corporate welfare, then the term has no meaning.

Many people believe corruption is why Philadelphia fails to attract new businesses and residents. While this is part of the story, I don’t believe passing this legislation will really do much to create good jobs, improve city services, or make neighborhood’s safer. And these three things are the true foundation on which a revitalized city will be built.

Anti-corruption legislation, while commendable, is simply a reaction to an age-old problem and won’t do very much by itself. People with large amounts of money will always figure out how to influence the political process. There will always be corruption. However, I believe it is possible that the seeds of a new movement can be found within the efforts to reform Philadelphia politics. To save our city, it cannot just be a reactionary movement. It must be an effort with bold vision, offering new solutions to familiar problems. I want to build a city where economic and social justice is the cornerstone of social policy. Where City Council is a laboratory for new ideas and innovative programs. Where social services are fully funded and all jobs pay a living wage.

I wonder if pay-to-play legislation moves us down that path? I’m not sure our energies couldn’t be better spent in other places.


At 1:50 PM, Blogger DanielUA said...

Ben, how does someone so young get so cynical? Yeesh. Or rather, how do you combine such cynicism (ie, corruption always there, etc.) with such idealism (City Council as incubator of ideas, etc.)?

No, pay to play legislation will not make our neighborhoods safer, or solve world hunger, or help someone lose five pounds, but, so what? As you say, it is common sense legislation. Why throw out the good (or even the basic) because it is not perfect? Why does pay-to-play legislation have to be an end, rather than a beginning of citizens demanding more from their government?

Is Street being hit hard for "business-as-usual"? Sure. But, then, isnt that all the more reason why we should have legislation, rather than simply waiting for Street to leave? Because the problems did not start with him and will not end with him?

And, generally, yes, jobs, better services, safer neighborhoods will all make Philly better off. But, don't you think a government with corruption through and through has a much harder time providing these things?

Without question, we need more than just a reactionary movement. But, as long as those who are banding together here realize that this is the start, a simple, easy start, this could be a great way to get off of the ground. An example: Moveon's LNVB campaign was effectively rectionary, in that it was really spurred by a desire to beat Bush more than anything else. However, out of that effort, and the empowerment people felt, we now have the soon to be launched Neighborhood Networks.

We need a positive vision of what we want our City to be. Isn't transparent Government a part of that? If so, why not pass this very basic legislation, and get our foot in the door?

At 2:18 PM, Blogger Pat Evans/Butcher/Wicks said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2:38 PM, Blogger Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg said...

Anti-corruption legislation, while commendable, is simply a reaction to an age-old problem and won’t do very much by itself. People with large amounts of money will always figure out how to influence the political process.

So are murder, robbery, etc. Do you think that we shouldn't write laws to prevent these, even if we know for a fact that it won't stop all murders?

Just because a problem is intractable doesn't mean we shouldn't create laws to address and hopefully alieviate the problem. Though we will never rid ourselves of corruption in government, allowing it to go on with pretty much the full consent of the law is wrong, counter productive, and immoral.

As Dan said- we need transparency. As the old saying goes- sunlight is the best disinfectant.

At 2:54 PM, Blogger Ben Waxman said...

I don't disagree that this legislation is important. However, those of us who are interested in trying to build a vibrant progressive movement need to honest with ourselves about the limitations of these bills. At the end of the day, Councilman Goode's proposal to raise the minimum wage will have a far greater impact on the lives of working people than Councilman Nutter's ethics reform.

However, people are getting all fired up about pay-to-play-- numerous editorials, lots of attention on blogs....while a proposal to raise the minimum wage doesn't receive near the response. Sure, it got a mention by Dan on YPP. But so do a lot of issues. In contrast, the petition on Nutter's bill has gotten a ton of traction.

The point I am trying to make is that ethics reform is good, but it's not something to get all that fired up about. It's not going to significantly alter the political, social, or economic conditions in the city.

As for the argument that corruption hurts growth-- this is true to some extent. Again, I am not arguing against Nutter's bills. However, a lot of economic growth happened while Rendell was Mayor. As Ray pointed out, he cut more deals for more money than Street ever did. And some good things still managed to happen in terms of economic growth.

Again, I think Ray's post is also an important thing to consider.

At 3:20 PM, Blogger Chronic_Roll said...

Read The Prince by Machiavelli. Maybe you'll sleep easier afterwards.

At 3:24 PM, Blogger Charles said...

I think we also have to ask what Nutter’s Bill will really do. Let’s face it. We all know that he is running for Mayor, and he will be willing to pass totally toothless legislation in order to score a win. The Bill also didn’t go down on the merits or lack thereof, but because of politics.

I have heard a lot about his legislation but haven’t really heard any details of what it does or what specifically people think that it can change. How important is it to pass toothless legislation just so we can all feel happy about having an ethics Bill? Now I’m not saying that the Bill is toothless, but I am saying that there has been a lot written about it here and other places, and I still don’t know the details of it. Isn’t that weird?

At 3:24 PM, Blogger Pat Evans/Butcher/Wicks said...

Dan you make some good points in reply to Ben's post. However, let's stop skirting around a primary issue in terms of the pay-to-play issue: race.

Why has Street taken the majority of the heat for the excesses of pay-to-play? Is it just coincidence?

I doubt it. I think that the excesses of past administrations boiled over just in time for the start of Street’s tenure leaving him to deal with the mess. And now, here he is the perfect (black) fall guy.

I don’t think this is a cynical perspective at all. This is the reality of race politics in Philadelphians. A reality that a lot of white, traditionally Democratic, liberals who hated and continue to hate John Street (and many even went as far as to support Sam Katz) need to face.

At 7:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben – you seem like a nice guy but must be too young to clearly remember the Rendell Administration. If you did, you’d realize the kind of nonsense that’s gone on under Street didn’t happen when Rendell was in. Sure, donors got contracts, and yes, that’s business as usual to some extent. But here’s the big difference – with Street, it’s “pay-to-play” and with Rendell – sometimes – it was “pay-and-play”. Might seem subtle, but it’s a huge difference. Also, under Rendell, firms and people that got contracts ACTUALLY DID THE WORK!!! Contrast this with what’s happened here, PEOPLE WERE GETTING PAID TO DO NOTHING!!

Street needed to buy loyalty and support – he doesn’t have real charisma or policy expertise – he and his supporters were desperate to win an election they thought they might loose. It made people do all sorts or weird (and illegal) things. That’s why there’s this big federal probe going on, not because of unfair treatment of Street.

At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Aaron Couch said...

the pay-to-play ethics bill is as important a progressive issue to get behind as there is. yes, even as important as minimum wage.

the corruption in city hall effects everything and everyone, and is a main contributing factor for how you get a mayor like john street and a city councilwoman like blackwell. these people have risen to power b/c of their ability to make connections and manage themselves in this corrupt system. the interests of the people and the city are continually left behind. you will get a more progressive city council a) when voters demand it, but also b) when the system isn't rigged to support the self-serving nepotism and insider dealings that create political clout in this city's government.

transparency is essential to a well-functioning democracy. the ethics bill is a step in that direction. it won't create dramatic changes immediately, but long term it is vital.

btw you guys rock.

At 2:00 PM, Blogger DanielUA said...

Hey Aaron,

Thanks for the compliment. And, if you like the site, why dont' you consider joing us as a writer on it?

At 11:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the benefit of charlesdog and others, one of the major facets of Nutter's ethics bill was to force disclosure from city agencies who award no-bid contracts. Currently, a majority of our tax dollars in Philly support no-bid contracts that are awarded without any real criteria (other than apparently knowing the right person) and no disclosure. Nutter's bill would make it more transparent who is receiving these contracts.

Additionally, the bill places donor restrictions on those who are seeking no-bid contracts. The limitations range from $2,000 per year from individuals to $10,000 from businesses.

I don't think any of us truly believe that the bill will bring an end to the corruption in City Hall. I do believe, however, that the purpose of the bill is to force some of these issues into the public eye. Disclosure is important.

I hope that a majority of City residents don't share the opinion that ethics reform is toothless or unimportant. It's really important that our politicians understand that we do care what's going on in City Hall. To imply otherwise means we've resigned ourselves to the idea that our City is for sale. I think we're better than that.


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