Is Congress corrupt? Mansur Gidfar talks about political corruption and how voters can fight to take back their government.
“We are a nation of fighters. Every freedom we have, we’ve earned.”
Congress is corrupt.
This is usually the part where money-in-politics reformers hastily qualify that statement. Now wait just a minute, the conventional argument goes, this “corruption” is not the dreaded “quid pro quo.” There are no bribes here; no brown paper bags full of cash being tossed into passing Lincoln Town Cars. We’re talking about a corrupt system, not corrupt people. “Institutional corruption,” as Harvard Law professor and notable reform advocate Lawrence Lessig calls it.
This view is neatly summarized in Lessig’s recent article, which argues that while members of Congress “must fund their campaigns in ways that certainly destroy the integrity of the system,” to call individual participants in that system “corrupt” is wrong. Since the system “drives good people to behave in ways that defeat the objectives of the system as a whole,” likening individual members of Congress who have come to thrive in a world of “institutional corruption” to criminals who accept bribes is, in Lessig’s view, intellectually dishonest. Others, like election law blogger and UC Irvine law professor Rick Hasen, take things a step further: To call the current state of affairs in Congress corrupt in any sense (institutional or otherwise) is, as Hasen sees it, a “bait and switch.”
Part of the issue is that the current working definition of corruption hinges on the concept of “quid pro quo.” That is, I hand a Congressman a briefcase full of money, and that Congressman gives me a sweet tax loophole specifically in return for that briefcase full of money. In the absence of quid pro quo bribery, anything else — however flagrant — is relegated to a more qualified definition like “dependence corruption” or “institutional corruption.” Corruption-lite, if you will.
But the fact that the current legal definition of corruption fails to encompass the reality of how corruption actually happens is exactly the problem: Our current system has rendered quid pro quo bribery obsolete. With so many perfectly legal ways to exchange money in return for favorable treatment from politicians, it takes a special kind of idiot to approach a member of Congress with an old-fashioned bribe in today’s Washington. Who needs a briefcase full of cash when an envelope full of campaign checks yields the same result? Why risk prison for soliciting a bribe when you can use the money a lobbyist parked in your Leadership PAC to take a resort vacation or a lavish winery tour? The nature of corruption has evolved, but our laws have not.
For example, let’s look at a recent situation involving Representative Jim Himes (D-CT). Rep. Himes co-sponsored and helped push a bill called H.R. 992 through the House of Representative. H.R. 992 would further deregulate derivatives, a financial instrument that played a major role in the 2008 financial crisis. The New York Times revealed that H.R. 992 was literally written by big bank lobbyists: 70 of the 85 lines in H.R. 992 were written by lobbyists for CitiGroup.
Rep. Himes has received more money from CitiGroup than any other member of Congress. The only politicians who received more money from CitiGroup in the 2012 election cycle were Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Seven of the top 10 interests funding his campaign committee and leadership PAC were financial services institutions. And here’s the kicker: Himes sits on the House Financial Services Committee. He’s supposed to regulate Wall Street banks, but instead he lets their lobbyists write their own rules.
You can understand, then, how an anti-corruption advocate such as myself might see the situation I just described as a modern update of good-old-fashioned bribery. The mechanism is different, but the fundamental dynamic (money goes one way, favorable treatment from a politician goes the other) is the same. Yet neither Rep. Himes nor CitiGroup broke a single law to make H.R. 992 happen. They didn’t have to.
A new study by researchers at Yale and UC Berkeley yielded revealing findings. The researchers sent two sets of meeting requests to 191 members of Congress. One group received an email with the subject line “Meeting with local campaign donors about cosponsoring bill.” The other group received an email with all mentions of “donors” replaced with “local constituents.” The result? Members of Congress were four times as likely to take a meeting with a prospective donor than with a regular constituent. (For the record, this is an overwhelming majority of Americans. Just 0.12% of the population made $200 or more in political contributions in the last election cycle.)
It’s important to note that these are “prospective donors” with no prior relationships to the members of Congress contacted in the study. Imagine the access granted to former colleagues. As Mark Leibovich noted in his book This Town, “In 1974, 3% of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. Now 50% of senators and 42% of congressmen do.” Combine that with the fact that those members of Congress who leave to become lobbyists enjoy, on average, a 1,452% raise. Combine that with the fact that the suburbs of Washington, D.C. now account for seven of the nation’s 10 richest counties, and a very clear picture emerges.
This is a culture of corruption. Our nation’s capital has become a place where those who can afford to hire lobbyists and throw fundraisers receive better treatment from our elected leaders than everyone else. It’s a system that requires the people to buy access to their own government, and every single member of Congress who perpetuates this system instead of devoting the full resources of their office to correcting it is as much to blame as the system itself.
So, is Congress full of criminals? No.
Is Congress corrupt? Absolutely yes.
I realize this all paints a very bleak picture, but a Congress that puts the interests of the people before those of big donors is by no means out of reach. The corruption outlined in this piece can be traced back to very specific shortcomings in our nation’s laws. We can fix those laws together, as long as we commit to three basic principles.
First, we must understand that Washington’s culture of corruption cannot be dismantled piecemeal. The first instinct of politicians with a vested interest in the status quo will be to pass a loophole-riddled half measure, and declare victory without actually solving the problem. Campaign finance reform alone is not enough. We need a complete overhaul of our campaign finance, lobbying, and congressional ethics laws, such as the reforms outlined in the American Anti-Corruption Act.
Second, we cannot afford to let the fight against corruption fall along partisan lines. Past efforts to combat the influence of money in politics have been perceived as pet projects of a left-wing fringe. Yet polls reveal overwhelming support for tough anti-corruption laws among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike. If this movement is pigeonholed as another liberal advocacy effort, it wall fall victim to the same paralyzing partisanship that has stalled progress on so many other issues.
Third, we must accept that the time for asking nicely has passed. In our current political climate, politicians will not take action unless forced to. That means refusing to push for meaningful anti-corruption reform must become a political liability. That means hounding candidates of both parties in every primary race, at every campaign stop and every town hall meeting. In short: We must make Congressional corruption a ballot box issue.
There’s a story Lawrence Lessig likes to tell when he talks about this fight against corruption that’s worth repeating here. When Ben Franklin was carried from the Constitutional Convention in September 1787, he was stopped in the street by a woman who said “Mr. Franklin, what have you wrought?” Franklin replied: “A republic madam, if you can keep it.”
Times being what they are, it’s often hard not to feel like we’re losing that republic. But our republic can’t be truly lost until the people stop fighting to keep it. From what I’ve seen, that fight is only just beginning.
Represent.Us is a national, nonpartisan anti-corruption organization. Represent.Us uses public education and grassroots organizing to advocate for an overhaul of American campaign finance, lobbying, and ethics laws. Learn more by visiting Represent.Us and American Anti-Corruption Act.