Big Picture
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Big Picture

How Corruption Works in the U.S.

How to fix the corruption of federal officials, and how not to

Is there something you would like Congress to do? Something that a majority of Americans support?

Maybe it’s getting health care costs under control (Americans pay twice as much as anyone else). Maybe it’s better and cheaper broadband. Maybe you want accountability for our $600-billion-per-year military budget (almost $2,000 from every man, woman and child). Maybe minimums for vacation days and parental leave (Americans get the least paid vacation time in the world). Maybe reducing prison sentences and crime (the U.S. has five times as many prisoners as other countries, per capita). Maybe you’re ticked off about the extreme size, political influence and profitability of Wall Street.

Whatever issue you care about most, Congress probably isn’t solving it. In August 2012, only 10% of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing, and that number has rarely gone above 20% in the past ten years, except right after the inaugurations of Obama and Trump.

People sense that Congress is corrupt. Unfortunately, most people do not understand exactly why this is true or how to fix it. This needs to change — and you can help. Read this article to find out how.

Some might suppose, for instance, that members of Congress are just there to make money. But if making money is your goal, running for Congress is an remarkably slow and difficult way to do it. Consider how much money was spent in recent elections:

Source: OpenSecrets

In 1998 that number was a high, but manageable, $1.6 billion, but in 2016, at least $4.2 billion is spent every two years in the fight for the 471 members of Congress (out of 538 total) who are up for re-election. Every two years. This money is not all raised and spent by candidates themselves (there are also party PACs, SuperPACs and so on) but on average, it’s $8.9 million spent per member of Congress (more for senators, less for the other guys). And on average, the winning side in each race spends more than the losing side.

Yet a congressman’s salary is only $174,000. All congresspeople put together earn under $100 million per year.

So, for this job, every two years you have to raise as much money as some of us earn in a lifetime, and attract support from PACs and SuperPACs to stand by you, convince a group of dedicated volunteers to campaign for you, develop a platform, thank hundreds of angry emailers for their valuable input, and do seemingly endless speeches and debates in front of tens of thousands of people. Then, you earn only a small fraction of the money you were able to raise. And that’s only if you win.

But every time you run, especially the first time, there is a large risk of defeat that will leave you with nothing (though if you lose re-election, at least you can become a “consultant” on K Street. It’s slimy, but the pay is incredible.)

If you’re smart enough to do all that, you can get hired much more easily for other jobs that pay just as much.

Here’s a radical idea: maybe many people that run for Congress for the first time don’t do it with the goal of being corrupt and disregarding the will of the people. Perhaps most of them even wanted to do good things for their country.

I believe this. But the corruption has grown into the system over time, and it forces itself into the lives of members of Congress, which is part of the reason that corruption does not decrease no matter how many new people we elect into that system.

Therefore, we must stop thinking of candidates as corrupt. We must stop hating candidates and congresspeople, and focus on the system instead. I will explain the system with an analogy:

Lesterland

Imagine if (as law professor Lawrence Lessig likes to say) there were a country called “Lesterland” where, instead of having a single election, there were two, and a candidate couldn’t get a seat in the democratic chamber without, in some sense, winning both of them?

In the Second Election, everyone is allowed to vote, like in a normal democracy, and the candidates run in single-seat districts, like in the United States.

But in the First Election, every candidate has to pass through a special “Lestering” process, in which people whose name happens to be “Lester” are allowed to give “stamps of approval” to candidates. In this first election, there is no specific limit on the number of winners or even a particular threshold for winning — but each Lester only has one or two stamps to give (it’s not important right now, but for some reason a few Lesters have a whole bunch of stamps, and there is a lottery system that ensures no more than 0.2% of male babies are named Lester). A Lester can only give one of his stamps (if he has more than one) to each candidate — but unlike normal citizens, who are restricted to only vote for someone in “their” district, a Lester can give a stamp to any candidate in any district.

Now, how the stamps work is that they allow people to know your name. Without stamps, your name is not allowed to appear in TV ads or yard signs or in newspapers, and you’re not allowed to share your message with journalists. Without knowing your name, no one will vote for you, so you will lose the Second Election. Each stamp allows 2,000 voters to find out your name and learn who you are and what you stand for. Now, sure, a candidate can talk to people door-to-door, or try to convince people with a viral meme on Facebook, but the stamps make it dramatically easier to get your message out.

The stamps turn out to be so important, in fact, that it’s almost unheard of to win without a pretty big pile of them, and on average, only about two candidates per district get enough stamps to have a shot at winning the Second Election.

You would think that all Lesters would all appreciate their importance in the election, but like all of us, Lesters have their own busy lives and many of them don’t participate. Some of those that do participate, though, have noticed that, when your name is Lester, election winners are much more likely to talk to you on the phone!

Some Lesters just use it as a source of friendship — you know, someone to talk to about politics. And if you’re going to have a party in the capitol, why not invite your elected representative? They’ll show up every time if your friends are named Lester, too. Others go further, suspecting that they can use their name to help build a business. Many years ago, a law was passed that Lesters couldn’t sell their stamps in exchange for favors or money, but everybody knows that Lesters give stamps to the people they like best. So the Lesters often call up representatives from all over the country to explain why it’s really important to add one little exception to the tax code, or why the loophole in that bill is actually a good thing and they should leave it in, or that the bill now up for debate would really hurt them and their families if it were to pass. Groups of Lesters even started banding together and send out surveys about issues, to help them choose who to give stamps to.

No one has to say it out loud — it’s simply understood that listening to the Lesters and treating them well helps lawmakers get elected.

The lawmakers don’t see an problem with the system; after all, Lesters are just people like you and me, and surely the issues Lesters care about are pretty much the same issues we all care about. Right? So, the lawmakers are convinced that the democracy of Lesterland is working perfectly fine. “What’s wrong with Lesters? Many of my best friends are Lesters!”

Still, over the years, the competition for stamps has gotten more and more fierce, and the lawmakers have noticed they have to talk to Lesters a lot to gather enough stamps for re-election. Stamps don’t grow on trees, after all. Pretty soon, some lawmakers were spending half of every day talking to Lesters — even outside election season!

Then the 2016 presidential election happened. The winner was a fellow named Lester K. Trump, who by coincidence has one of the world’s biggest stamp collections.

Of course, Lesterland is just a simplified view of the United States. Lesters are rich people and a “stamp” is a check for $2,700 — the maximum campaign contribution that one person can give to one candidate.

This story includes key elements of D.C. corruption, but some elements were left out of the story, such as the important role of lobbyists, and the ways that Lawmakers can even influence the wealthy donors. (For instance, if a tax rule is temporary rather than permanent, and has to be “extended” every year or two, a lawmaker can actively look for donors who benefit from that rule, call them one by one, and say “hey, this your representative, Mr. Lawmaker. I just want to let you know, I have your back. I’m going to vote to extend that rule. And if you really want it to pass, you’d better call up the others in my party to let them know how important it is to you! By the way, we’re falling behind our fundraising targets. Have you thought about donating again?”)

Here are some important statistics:

  • Only 0.26% of voters donate $200 or more to any candidate for Congress.
  • Only 0.05% of voters give the maximum campaign contribution (about the same number of voters as there are people named “Lester”)
  • Only 0.01% of voters give $10,000 or more to a combination of candidates.

A little math shows that those giving big-dollar amounts are those that matter the most. In the 2014 election, only one single congressperson out of 538 (Alan Grayson) raised the majority of his campaign contributions from small donations of under $200. In 2016, he lost his bid for Senate.

So while small money often serves as a “nutritional supplement”, big money is the food they all live on, almost without exception. Anything less is a starvation diet.

This is even more true once you add SuperPACs, the regulatory designation created after Citizens United to allow corporations and wealthy donors to bypass limits on campaign donations. For example, a recent candidate that ran a small-money campaign, Zephyr Teachout, who wrote a book about corruption, reportedly had an average campaign contribution of $19. Despite the outpouring of small donations, Bernie Sanders and others helped her raise more money than her opponent from tens of thousands of people all across the country (nearly $5 million). Still, she lost the race after SuperPACs spent $6.7 million to defeat her, mostly at the end of the campaign (other SuperPACs spent roughly half as much to support her).

Rich people, of course, are hard-working people like the rest of us. But the majority of them don’t hand out big fat checks to elected officials, and those that do often have an interest in maintaining some specific part of the status quo — whether it’s one particular tax regulation or loophole that is good for their business, or a government contract they’d like to maintain, or complex regulations that help keep competitors out.

In fact, the U.S. is worse than Lesterland. Because while Lesters are pretty representative of the American public, wealthy donors aren’t quite. Sure, big-money donors may like the idea of getting health care costs under control, or creating a basic income, or raising the minimum wage (or not), or improving the government’s efficiency, or streamlining regulations generally, but all those issues aren’t as urgent. If you’re spending $2,700, the first thing on your mind will be whatever directly affects your business.

Those lower-priority items are nice to have, but they tend to encounter more opposition in the Senate that the higher-priority items. After all, certain people benefit from high health care costs. Certain people benefit from low minimum wage. Certain people benefit from government inefficiency, if it involves lucrative private sector contracts. Often, certain people benefit from complex regulations. And in the finance industry, they benefit from less regulation and the promise of future bailouts.

So why don’t things get done? Consider these two facts:

  • It’s easy to block progress in the Senate through holds and filibusters, and disagreements between the House and Senate can also block legislation. This tends to make Congress slow and unproductive on contentious issues (by the way, corruption reform may well be a contentious issue.)
  • Legislators spend 30 to 70 percent of their time fundraising. Given this and their other responsibilities (speeches, public appearances, etc.), they really don’t have much time left to actually draft and review bills.

In Short,

Modern corruption isn’t the “hard” corruption of bribery. It’s the “soft” corruption of how the system forces members of congress to spend their time in a certain way, to constantly hone their message so it appeals to those with a lot of “stamps”, and to vote for rules that are not in the public’s best interest. It’s what makes congressmen grateful that lobbyists “donate” their time to organize fundraisers for them (freeing up valuable time for them to write and review bills), and to help them write and review bills (freeing up valuable time for them to spend fundraising).

It’s subtle. The candidate spends the vast majority his time talking to rich donors and to other people who are already influenced by donors and wealthy interests (such as other congressmen and lobbyists), so his mode and habits of thinking drift over time. Slowly but surely, he or she is molded to act more like his peers and his donors.

What Won’t Work

If we want to avoid unpleasantness, such as civil war, we will have to rely on Congress itself to fix its own corruption, and that’s a tricky business. For example, even if you can organize a million people to march on Washington or call their representatives, you can’t expect Congress to pass any law that destroys its “food supply”, or punishes itself for its own corruption.

Luckily, we might not have to.

As we discuss the solution to corruption in Washington, it’s important not to get distracted by thinking that corruption is a new phenomenon that only appeared after the Citizens United decision in 2010, as Bernie Sanders seems to think. Here’s the late Senator Paul Wellstone explaining to his fellow senators in October 1999 how corruption works:

Citizens United was an unwise decision by the Supreme Court that allowed SuperPACs to pump a lot more money into elections. But overturning it requires a constitutional amendment, and a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of Congress. Such a large majority is almost unfathomable. Thus, Citizens United distracts us from much more practical solutions that can be passed with an ordinary majority.

We should not be distracted by focusing too much on transparency, either. Transparency is generally a good thing that will allow us to see corruption more clearly. That’s not nearly as good as getting rid of it.

Gerrymandering, too, is a big problem that unfairly increases the power of one party over the other. It did not, however, cause the soft corruption described here, which affects both parties.

Trump’s “five point plan” attempts to limit what congresspeople and congressional staffers are allowed to do after they leave office, and to reduce foreign financial influence (which doesn’t seem to be a real problem in the first place). It does not deal at all with lawmakers’ fundamental dependence on wealthy (American) special interests.

Term limits would increase the amount of new blood in Congress, which would be great, but I’d be surprised if Congresspeople are willing to legislate themselves out of a job. In fact, if Trump’s proposal is also put in place, members of Congress would have fewer job prospects when they leave. Why would they support that? Also, term limits don’t reduce the influence of SuperPACs or the need for massive fundraising efforts, and they doesn’t reduce the role of lobbyists in fundraising.

The Solution

In short, the root cause is undue influence by wealthy special interests, and the inescapable need for fundraising guarantees that every lawmaker is subject to that influence, including new ones. Even Trump, a billionaire, self-funded only 23% of his campaign.

Meanwhile, Citizens United essentially says that we can’t get money out of politics.

And yet there are still ways to decrease how much congresspeople depend on wealthy special interests. Rather than preventing SuperPACs from dumping loads of cash to influence elections, we just need to give ordinary citizens a “financial voice” of similar magnitude, or larger. If we can do that, then congresspeople would — for the first time in years — be able to focus their fundraising efforts mainly on ordinary citizens. Finally, it would be practical to avoid asking for money from millionaires and special interests.

It’s called campaign finance reform, and there are several versions of it. This list comes from Larry Lessig’s book “Lesterland”:

  • The Fair Elections Now Act would give candidates a chance to fund their campaigns with small-dollar contributions only. After qualifying through a large number of small donations, candidates would receive a large lump sum to fund their campaigns, and small contributions ($100 or less) received after qualifying would be matched by the government 5 to 1.
  • The American Anti-Corruption Act, “the most comprehensive reform proposal advanced in a century”, supported by the reform group Represent.US, would give every voter a $100 voucher, which citizens could give to candidates who agree to fund their campaign with small-dollar contributions only.
  • Lessig’s own idea involves a smaller voucher of $50, funded by rebating the first $50 every voter pays in taxes. Candidates could receive those vouchers if they agree to fund their campaign with vouchers only, plus contributions capped at $100 per citizen.
  • Congressman John Sarbanes, (D) Maryland proposed the Grassroots Democracy Act, which creates matching grants, tax credits, and a pilot program for vouchers, all to the end of making it feasible for candidates to fund their campaigns with small-dollar contributions only.

Personally, I like whatever Represent.US or MayDay.US likes. The important thing is, as long as Congresspeople can raise as much money through one of these systems as they could raise before, they can cut their unhealthy dependence on wealthy donors. Campaign finance reform won’t be the end of all corruption, but it is the most vital step in returning control of Congress to the people.

Here’s how each one of us can help:

  • When you vote, check what each candidate says (or won’t say) about campaign finance reform. Avoid voting for anyone who doesn’t support it.
  • Call or write your Senator to tell them how important this issue is to you. When they tell you they support a half-measure like more transparency, or a constitutional amendment that they know will never pass, tell them you’re not satisfied. You want campaign finance reform.
  • If you donate to political candidates, check their stance on campaign finance reform first. Don’t donate to anyone who doesn’t support it (including the Donald). Look specifically for anti-corruption candidates.
  • Consider donating to MayDay or Represent.US.
  • Can’t afford to donate? Consider volunteering for an anti-corruption candidate or organization.
  • Share this article with friends.

Other measures could help. Giving congresspeople a bigger staff could decrease their dependence on lobbyists. Giving them a bigger salary is a political faux pas, but it might make them feel that they can afford to be more independent from lobbyists and special interests (particularly for those rare congress freshmen that weren’t already millionaires when they took office). Imposing term limits will bring in new people. The revolving door is a major problem (and I don’t see a clear solution). But campaign financing is the key, because while other factors facilitate corruption, the current campaign finance system guarantees it.

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root. — Henry David Thoreau

As long as we don’t understand the problem and don’t unite behind campaign finance reform, Congress will keep ignoring our voices. Don’t let them!

So grab the issue you care most about, sit it down in front of you, look it straight in the eyes and explain to it that there will be no Christmas until we fix this corruption. That on practically none of the most important issues facing this country will we make any progress toward any sensible reform until this corruption ends. - Larry Lessig

Do you agree? Then click that ♥ heart!

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David Piepgrass

David Piepgrass

Fighting for a better world and against dark epistemology.

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