In America, There Are Three Forms of Political Corruption, and Only One Is Really Illegal

(photo: Erlen Aasland on Flickr)

The bane of any functioning government system is corruption. Corruption doesn’t just cause unfair and poor allocation of resources, it eventually undermines faith in the government. This, in turn, can create an extremely destructive, self-reinforcing, downward spiral, eventually undermining the entire system.

The frightening thing for America is that there exists three main forms of political corruption, but, in this country, only one is illegal.

Personal money in direct exchange for favors – illegal

This is the simplest, most direct form of corruption. It involves an individual directly giving someone with political power money in exchange for favors. This is the giant suitcase full of bills to “make a problem go away.”

In America, this form of corruption is clearly illegal and, fortunately, rare. The unfortunate thing, of course, is that the less direct forms of corruption are legal, so only a fool or extraordinarily greedy person would ever take part in an action of blatant corruption.

Campaign spending and donations in exchange for favors – not really illegal

Instead of giving politicians suitcases of money in exchange for favors, the wealthy make large campaign donations to politicians that “share their values on the issue” and PAC/IE that threaten to spend millions against politicians that vote against their interests.

This is probably the most popular indirect form of corruption in American politics. It is basically entirely legal, and, thanks to Citizen’s United, the regular citizens of this country now have basically no safeguard against it.

To a large degree, it doesn’t even require the individual trying to buy influence to directly talk to the politicians their money will benefit. They can now merely announce anonymously through shell corporations that they plan to spend $2 million to unseat any politician who voted for or against X. Their opponent will easily get the message.


Payment later in exchange for favors now – nothing is done to stop it

Under this form of corruption, the wealthy business doesn’t directly pay the political figure a set pile of money now in exchange for favors. Instead, through a wink and a nod, they let it be known that if they get the favors they want now, they will be happy to give them huge quantities of money later.

This form of corruption dominates the lobbying business, and regulatory capture often known as the revolving door. Politicians, regulators, and even Pentagon officials know that if they are friendly to a company now, they can almost be assured an extremely lucrative job in the near future. The companies don’t even need to explicitly make the future job offer in exchange for their request. Previous hiring patterns and not so subtle hints make the offer clearly understood

Since the direct one-to-one connection is basically impossible to prove in a court of law, it is essentially legal. As a nation, we have almost not safeguards against this popular form of corruption.

Reducing the damage – Public campaign financing and permanently shutting the revolving door

Given that we have the first amendment and our current Supreme Court, eliminating the corruption funneled through political donations would be impossible, but we can take steps to dramatically reduce the damage. Strong disclosure laws, a tax on corporate political advertising, and voluntary public campaign financing, through actions like the Fair Elections Now Act, would go a long way toward significantly reducing the problem. We remain one of the only major democracies without public campaign financing.

Proving a direct link between past actions and later employment in the “revolving door” system is almost impossible. There might not need to be directly unethical behavior, subconscious concerns about future employment could be enough to result in decisions not in the best interest of the public.

Since the problem is so difficult and pervasive, probably the best and only workable option is a broad, draconian ban. Make it illegal for any member of Congress to work for a company that has business before a committee they served on or any private company engaged in any form of lobbying for 15 years after leaving office. The ban should be as broad and far-reaching as possible to assure that a member of Congress never works directly or indirectly for a company that, as a result of one of his or her votes, got billions in government contracts or special favors. If congressional pensions need to be increased to compensate for the limits on employment options, that cost would still probably be a tiny fraction of the money saved thanks to the reduction in corruption.

Similar bans should also be put in place for important regulators and Pentagon officials. If salaries need to be increased to still attract good regulators despite the new restrictions. in the long run, it would likely be a very smart investment.

Having easy and quasi-legal forms of corruption isn’t good for the public

If you ever wonder why extremely popular bipartisan legislation like drug re-importation still never manages to get enacted in our democracy, the answer lies heavily with the fact that there are three common forms of corruption, and two are effectively legal. As long as Washington is dominated by two forms of corruption that are incredibly pervasive, it is almost impossible to see legislation passed that would merely help the public if it meant hurting big corporations with plenty of money to spend on legal corruption.

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