Earlier this year, veteran political writer Thomas Edsall reported an eyebrow-raising fact about Americans’ views toward government. Polling by Gallup, he noted, found that the proportion of Americans who believed that corruption is “widespread” in government had risen from 59 percent in 2006 to 79 percent in 2013. “In other words,” Edsall wrote, “we were cynical already, but now we’re in overdrive.”
Given the blanket coverage devoted to public officials charged with selling their influence, this shouldn’t be surprising. Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife were convicted recently of violating public corruption laws. Former mayors Ray Nagin of New Orleans and Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit were good for months of headlines. So were Republican Rep. Rick Renzi, convicted last year on influence-peddling charges, and Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who pled guilty to charges of misusing campaign funds.
If you add state and local officials who cross the line, it might seem that we’re awash in corruption. Yet as political scientist Larry Sabato told The New York Times, that’s more perception than reality. “I’ve studied American political corruption throughout the 19th and 20th centuries,” he said, “and, if anything, corruption was much more common in much of those centuries than today.”
Nor have the numbers over the past couple of decades risen. In 1994, according to the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, 1,165 people were charged in public-corruption cases, of whom 969 were convicted. Last year, 1,134 were charged, of whom 1,037 were convicted.
Corruption is hardly a negligible issue. Americans rightly have very little tolerance for public officials who are on the take. Officials who violate the law in this regard should face criminal prosecution and incarceration.
But what’s notable about our corruption laws is how narrow they’ve become. This point is driven home by Fordham Law School Professor Zephyr Teachout in her new book, Corruption in America. "As a matter of federal constitutional law,” she writes, “corruption now means only 'quid pro quo' corruption." Prosecutors today have to prove an intentional exchange between “briber” and public official, in which the official receives a benefit for taking action.
Teachout argues that our Founders were quite resistant to public behavior promoting private interest. She quotes George Mason, for instance, arguing against giving the President the power to appoint key officials: “By the sole power of appointing the increased officers of government,” Mason insisted, “corruption pervades every town and village in the kingdom.”
As late as the second half of the 1800s, American society was alarmed by the notion that private individuals might seek to influence government on their own or others’ behalf. “If any of the great corporations of the country were to hire adventurers... to procure the passage of a general law with a view to the promotion of their private interests, the moral sense of every right-minded man would instinctively denounce the employer and the employed as steeped in corruption,” the Supreme Court declared in 1874.
We have another word for “adventurers” these days. We call them lobbyists.
Americans remain uncomfortable with “corruption” as our forebears viewed it. A hefty majority believe that government is run on behalf of a few big interests. And Congress, whose ethics committees have not been rigorous in looking for misconduct that brings discredit on their chambers, has contributed to that view.
I would hardly contend that all who seek to promote their private interests are corrupt. But I do think the Founders had a valuable insight when they saw that a focus on private concerns could lead to neglect of the common good.
I have the uneasy feeling that too many politicians are self-absorbed, failing to put the country first, and using their office to promote their private interests. Our Founders had very firm ideas about the importance to the nation of “virtue” in a public official – and they were thinking expansively about the basic standards of public accountability.
Maybe it’s time we looked to them for guidance, and not think of corruption only in the narrow sense of violations of specific laws or precepts, but more broadly in terms of failing to pursue the common good.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.