Fighting Congressional Corruption By Getting Money Out Of Politics

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.”



ongress 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.

Members of Congress were four times as likely to take a meeting with a prospective donor than with a regular constituent.

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.

Polls reveal support for anti-corruption laws among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike.

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.


Mansur Gidfar is the Communications Director for Represent.Us. He previously worked as a deputy editor at Upworthy, one of the fastest-growing media companies of all time. He holds a B.S. in Advertising from the University of Colorado. Follow him on Twitter.



  1. Money can be used for Good, or for Evil. It’s not always clear when Money comes before Policy, and when Money is there Because of Policy. When a Politician moves Special Interests to “Sponsor” their Ideas because they share a Passion for the Platform they support that is a Collaboration. A Meeting of the Minds. When the Special Interests give Money in order to Sway the Opinion of the Politician, sure, that’s an outright Case of Money Corrupting Politics. In a way, both good and bad Situations are Influenced by Money, and it can get Difficult to tell. That’s why Transparency is so Important. Lay everything out and Educate the Voter and let them draw their own Conclusions. What are they afraid of?

    Term Limits are Bad. They Spoil Democracy. With the exception of the Office of the President of the United States, Term Limits only end up Limiting Democracy. It takes the Elements of Choice and Fairness out of our Elective Process. If you want to get rid of Someone, then Vote them out of Office. We shouldn’t sanction using some Arbitrary Number of Terms. Some Politicians are the People’s Choice they can Prove it by winning Elections. It is the Job of the Electorate to Activate, and Vote. Special Interests can Benefit from Someone that holds Office for a long time, True. But they can also benefit from some Limit that makes sure a Rival Politician will soon be Forced out of Office.

    Both Parties’ Creativity and Influence could be more Realistically Tested with less Money swirling around. A lot of People feel Disconnected from Politics because Fundraisers are often out of Social and Financial reach for many Constituents.

    Much more involvement on a Community Level. We need to help Get Out The Vote in Realistic ways. Make more Jobs for Organizers that actually Pay (we could use some of that Money Floating Around), instead of depending almost exclusively on Volunteers to do the Politicking. This leaves once Energized Activists feeling overwhelmed, and these days we often don’t have the best People out there because they can’t afford the time and loss of income to work for Free on a Campaign.

  2. Money has a huge impact on the choices made by our legislators. Our country goes through cycles of government enacting laws that benefit the rich until the general population us hurting so bad that changes have to be made. What happened to the anti trust laws that were enacted after the depression?
    I totally support the anticorruptionact but I believe term limits are the only real solution to slowing corruption. Our voters are working so hard just to survive that most of us dont have the time or ability to search out the truth behind the ads and media spin. Once a person gets elected to he/she seems to automatically be reelected term after term unless someone with more money comes along. One method that might break the cycle of automatc reelection but still allow voter freedom would be staggered terms. The politician could fill 2 consecutive terms but then be required to sit out a term before running again.

    1. Not a great discussion at all. The top comment is an overlong quote about the military industrial complex that is barely related to the issue of campaign finance reform.

      1. There are plenty of relevant comments, and out of 170 you’re complaining about ONE? If you have something constructive to add, please do so here.

      2. Pardon me while I laugh myself sick at the suggestion that the military industrial complex is in any way NOT connected to campaign finance reform issues. …It’s the single biggest expenditure of the federal government.

  3. I’d be interested in knowing what effect the recent ruling by the US Supreme Court which basically states (I’m providing a very lose definition here) that corporations are considered citizens — or something along those lines. This ruling seemed to open the gates of corruption in politics even further because it gives even great power, along with a louder voice, to corporations over those of us who are constituents and doing the actual voting. I think if we limit the flow of where the money is coming from (corporations) then hopefully we would see a shift start to happen. Is it the absolute cure, certainly not, but it could be a beginning. It’s difficult to curb corruption when greed will always be more of a flaw, rather than an attribute, of humans!

    1. The “recent” legislation that you talked about was a ruling in 1819 in the Dartmouth Collage vs Woodword that said that corporations have the right of regular people, such as the right to sue in court. This ruling has been a major part of US history and politics from the Gilded Age (1887-190x) untill now and has shaped the political landscape. You will be hard pressed to try and enact change on something that has been in place for almost two centuries.

  4. There are so many things that are happening to this country to worry about because of corporate influence that I do not know where to start. Do you know Tom Ridge went immediately to work for the fracking industry after being our first director of homeland security? They look at anti fracking protesters as terrorists in their meetings. Watch Gasland 2. Animal rights activists are listed as domestic terrorists for filming our food and gag laws are put on them. They now can be put in federal prisons for taking a picture. Corporations are making our laws. Corporations are are now running for profit prisons. I will write more later. But I am going to leave you with the fact that a Dupont heir got probation for raping a three year old (admitted it). In Detroit three ten year olds were arrested on felony burglary charges for reaching through a broken window to get toilet paper on a dare. They got diverted into a new program but were cuffed arrested and printed. It was on Frontline. We are calling environmentalists terrorists. Who is in charge here. Our government is not releasing papers about animal activist right now because they say it would endanger national security. Really? These guys thrive on us not paying attention and operating behind closed doors. Let us open the doors. Each congress person needs to be held up to the spotlight. Donations need to be limited and transparent. Citizens united needs to be revoked.

  5. …You know what always worries me…and by worries, I means “fills me with despair to the point where I drink myself to sleep”…about this sort of article…is that you start things off with some absolutely ferocious statistics and studies by places like Harvard and Berkley outlining the problem…and then ends on a whimper, with a Ben Franklin mythos tale, and some generalities and platitudes like “Hound your congressman!”

    “Hound your congressman?” …Hound him HOW? …You just flat said that they were 4X as likely to take a meeting with a donor as a “constituent.” This kind of op-ed piece is extremely good telling us what’s wrong, and not so great at suggesting solutions…because, duh – if the problem was that easy to fix, we’d have done it by now.

    My personal opinion is: Eventually the plebes in this country are going to have to understand that the only way to fight money is with more money. Obama did it right – that guy out fundraised Moneybags Mitt Romney on mostly grassroots issues, and with scads of small donations, despite the fact that Romney was the clear corporate contender.

    I think in future articles you should drill-down on fixes, unless your entire point is “There is no fix, short of starvation and eventual revolution.” …Because “There is no fix” is what this article conveys.

    1. Well, from the way I understand the piece, it’s not meant to solve everything in 1,500 words. It’s meant to spur discussion and debate — which, the way I understand things — is the mission statement of Stir Journal. I think the author did an outstanding job in laying out the details of the problem in such a way as to not bait us with partisanship, which is what an article like this usually does.

    2. I disagree that this article implies that there is no fix, Newt. If you look at Represent.Us’ website, you’ll see that they have a painstakingly detailed plan of action, including the American Anti-Corruption Act. They also have an impressively bipartisan Board of Advisors, which suggests anything but hopelessness.

      I would ask that you also read STIR’s “ABOUT” page. We publish articles with the goal of having commenters suggest actions they believe will make positive changes. If you weren’t satisfied with the points made in the article, (eg., making Congressional corruption a ballot box issue), maybe you could contribute alternative solutions.

      STIR will present pieces about controversial issues. Our contributors may or may not offer solutions, but they will encourage readers to think. We hope our audience is smart enough to discuss possible actions, rather than being spoon-fed ways to “fix” problems in the world.

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