Consumer confidence in the financial markets has been slow to return since the financial crisis began. However, confidence in our government and politicians has only deteriorated, taking with it any hope of immediate recovery. Public policy researchers, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers noted in a May 2011 study, what they called a “recent sharp decline in the confidence the American public has in their government, financial, and business sectors, and to a lesser extent, their media and their courts.” Stevenson and Wolfers concluded: “The business cycle has immense influence in shaping the public’s attitudes about its bankers, business leaders, and politicians. When times are good, their approval ratings rise, and when times are bad, like during the economic crisis, those ratings plummet, and corruption rises.” The fact that businesses have so much control over modern day public policy and law, demonstrates the level of corruption involved.
This left me wondering, “Can corruption be regulated?” The brightest minds in the worlds of philosophy, law and politics agree corruption is a cancerous threat, but nobody can figure out how to effectively fight it. The founding fathers and authors of our nation’s Constitution and Bill of Right accurately predicted, “Corruption would be a constant and lasting threat to our democracy”. The simple exchange of cash for a vote, or what the Supreme Court in its 2010 campaign finance decision called, “quid pro quo corruption”, is just one part of the broader scope of corruption.
A politician using the power of their public office for private means poses a real threat to the American republic. Philosopher Baron de Montesquieu stated, “The misfortune of a republic happens when the people are gained by bribery and corruption: in this case they grow indifferent to public affairs, and avarice becomes their predominant passion.” Fighting corruption on a case-by-case basis has proven to be exceedingly difficult to manage. Our democratic system seeks to counteract corruption through a few structural safeguards, but they all have loop holes, and those loop holes have loop holes. What’s the old adage, “Where there’s a will there’s a way”? America’s legal and political system maintains a continued concern for addressing corruption but does not go far enough to address it or correct it.
Our democratic system fosters a culture of allowing private interests (lobbyists) to provide public servants with remuneration, which creates a debt, and humans feel an almost innate need to repay their debts. These private interests have no qualms strong-strongarming those same politicians when a debt is owed to intercede on behalf of their private affairs. This “pay to play” mentality is most noticeable and accepted in the legislative branch, where Congressmen and Senators are notoriously known to take pay-offs and bribes. It is only slightly less pervasive within the executive branch, and almost forbidden in the judicial branch. Because of these ongoing legal and ethical concerns, lobbying itself was treated as illegal for much of the nation’s history. This seems inconceivable in today’s political culture, in which “K Street” lobbying dominates our political and financial economies alike.
If anyone has lingering doubt big business corrupts politics, they should look no further than the former king of “K Street” himself, Jack Abramoff. Abramoff’s lobbying scandal in 2005-2006 stemmed from the work performed by political lobbyists on Native American casino gambling interests for an estimated $85 million in fees. Abramoff and others grossly over-billed their clients, secretly splitting the multimillion-dollar profits, all the while paying off key politicians. In one case, they were secretly lobbying against their own clients in order to force them to pay for expensive lobbying services. In the course of the scheme, the lobbyists were accused of illegally giving gifts and making campaign donations to legislators in return for votes or support of legislation. An lengthy investigation led to his conviction, and to 21 other people either pleading guilty or being found guilty, including prominent White House officials, U.S. Representative, and Congressional aides. While corruption may never be eradicated from civilization, the survival of our democratic system is dependent upon us doing our best to contain it.
What are your thoughts? Can corruption be regulated or not?