Why Political “Corruption” Is Good

In his column in today’s New York Times, Thomas Edsall makes the case for what he calls “good corruption.” His essential point is that effective government is often weakened by reforms that make it harder for politicians to make the compromises necessary to strike political deals and build voting coalitions. As he writes, “The best politicians are sensitive to the relative importance of moral considerations as they shift from the public arena to the back room, aware that ultimate judgment of what they have done will be based more on what they produce than how they produce it.”

One need not adopt Edsall’s juxtaposition of “good” with “corruption” to appreciate his broader argument. It is one that political scientists have been making for some time, particularly in efforts to explain the growing partisan polarization within our governing institutions. They have documented a series of well-meaning reforms that have collectively made American institutions and processes far less insular, and much more open to direct popular participation during the last four decades. These include an increase in presidential primaries, more open committee meetings and recorded votes in Congress, expanded rules of standing and a more activist judiciary, and technological advances that have made it easier to gauge public opinion and reach out to prospective supporters, to name only the most prominent. In each case supporters hoped that these reforms would make politics both more transparent and more accessible. But, in a classic illustration of Dickinson’s Third Rule of Politics – “for every intended benefit of a political reform, there is likely to be an unintended cost” – the cumulative impact of these reforms has arguably made American politics less representative. The reason is that most members of the public are not very interested in politics on a daily basis. As a result, a more open political process tends to reward the most politically active, who typically possess more ideologically coherent and extreme views, and thus are less likely to support the “good corruption” that Edsall favors. When one is doing God’s work, as most issue activists and ideological purists believe they are, compromise with the opposition is the road to damnation.

To drive home his point, Edsall points to two reforms that he argues have reduced the ability of political leaders to forge the compromises necessary to govern effectively. The first is the elimination in 2010 of congressional earmarks – those legislative directives to fund specific projects that helped grease the wheels of the lawmaking process. In a rare instance of bipartisan compromise, House Republicans worked with President Obama to remove these side payments from the legislative process. The idea was to end the wasteful (and corrupt?) practice that led party leaders to trade tax-subsidized projects for legislators’ votes. However, with earmarks eliminated, Edsall argues, party leaders have one less source of leverage with which to forge coalitions. Edsall’s point is driven home in Robert Draper’s wonderful When the Tea Party Came to Town, in which Draper recounts a conversation between House Speaker John Boehner and his veteran House colleague Ralph Hall during a particularly tough vote: “It’s not like the old days, Ralph”, Boehner lamented. “Without the earmarks to offer, it’s hard to herd the cats.”

Edsall’s second example is campaign finance reform. Here he is particularly critical of three recent Court cases – Citizens United v. F.E.C., McCutcheon v. F.E.C. and Speechnow.org v. F.E.C. – that he argues have collectively reinforced “the public’s view that government is run for the benefit of powerful special interests.” Here, however, I think Edsall’s example works against his broader argument. The fact is that public suspicion of the role of money in politics predates these recent court rulings – indeed, that suspicion helped fuel previous campaign reform efforts, such as the McCain-Feingold bipartisan campaign reform act of 2002. However, in a sterling illustration of Dickinson’s Second Law – “money always finds its way to candidates” – the biggest impact of campaign finance reform dating back to the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act, (as amended in 1974) has not been to reduce the amount of campaign contributions to candidates or the importance of money in campaigns more generally. Rather, the general impact has been to shift how money gets to candidates while simultaneously forcing those running for office to spend more time fundraising. The early evidence is that the three most recent court decisions Edsall cites have not necessarily increased the importance of money so much as altered the way it flows from contributors to candidates. In contrast to Edsall, I believe it is this combination of repeated efforts to limit the impact of money on elections juxtaposed against the reality that candidates spend an increasing amount of time fundraising that fuels public cynicism toward campaign finance reform. Indeed, one could argue that for all its faults (and they were significant), the pre-1971 era of campaign finance at least exhibited something of the “good corruption” that Edsall believes exerts a salutary impact on government in other contexts.

My point is not to advocate a return to the pre-1974 era when presidents shook down companies that were doing business with government. Rather, it is to express general agreement with Edsall’s broader point (if not all his specific examples), which is that reforms that make it harder to engage in the vote trading and compromise necessary to cut deals may not, despite reformers’ best intentions, have a salutary impact on our political system. Instead, increased transparency and more participatory institutions and processes can make it harder to govern. In short, if we want politicians to get things done, we may need to relax our zealous efforts to take politics out of the political process by, for example, persisting in thinking we can eliminate the role of money in campaigns. And rather than condemn our elected leaders for sacrificing principle on the altar of political pragmatism, Edsall suggests we instead take a look at our own behavior in the context of his proposal: “Political morality in this context becomes something far less rigid and rule-bound than many in the public conceive it to be – even though, in their own lives, most people act more like politicians than they would like to think.” Politicians are not angels – and neither are we.

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