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Absolute power corrupts trivially
Posted by: McQ on Wednesday, October 25, 2006

I was talking with Dale recently about the political culture in our country and how we seem to have managed over the years to elect and keep in office what I can only charitably describe as mediocre leaders. In fact, I'm even hesitant to attach the term 'leader' to most of them. And my question to him was "given the "anal exam" most politicians must undergo - and which, in my estimation, keep the brightest and best from running for office - why would anyone knowingly subject themselves to that simply to win national office.

Dale's one-word answer?

"Perks."

And when you think about it, few if any go to Washington DC as Representatives or Senators and finally come home paupers. The "opportunities" for enrichment are almost infinite. And, in my estimation, those who do suffer through the obligatory exam aren't, for the most part, doing it out of a sense of service and selflessness, but as an understood prerequisite for access to the perqs. IOW, they're willing to undergo the short term questioning of their ethics, finances, beliefs and past because if they're successful in their quest to land in higher office, they are made men and women. The bank is open.

Ruth Marcus writes a column in today's Washington Post which does nothing but add credibility to that theory. Speaking of Harry Reid's tipping the staff of the Ritz Carlton, where the poor legislator is forced to live while in DC, with campaign funds, his attitude is that of entitlement.
Reid's actions are more important, though, as an illustration of the entrenched, bipartisan congressional mind-set of entitlement. Republicans and Democrats may not agree on much, but their joint operating ethos too often boils down to an attitude of: "It's my due. Why shouldn't I?"

Lawmakers have steadfastly resisted clamping down on privately funded travel. They have refused to do away with free use of corporate jets. They eagerly take freebies such as skybox tickets and expensive meals under the prevailing "don't ask, don't pay" congressional culture in which someone else — a company, a campaign committee — is always picking up the tab.

Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but it also corrupts trivially. What's striking about Congress (aside from flagrantly corrupt members such as former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham) is the nickel-and-dime nature of the benefits they feel entitled to take, from Reid's acceptance of free boxing tickets from the Nevada Athletic Commission to California Republican Rep. John Doolittle's use of campaign funds to pay the babysitter.
While those trivial abuses may seem, well, trivial, they speak to exactly what Marcus is pointing too ... if they'll abuse the system on a trivial level, it goes without question they'll do it on a much greater and more important level as well.

We've talked many times about the culture that exists in Washington DC and how detrimental it is to the proper function of a Constitutional Republic. It is a culture of entitlement and special interest politics. And that leads to a bi-partisan culture of corruption. That's why, for the most part I dont' feature the latest Congressman or woman to get caught with their hand in the cookie jar. The culture encourages it. And with that sort of culture a certain type of person is attracted to it. And they certainly aren't the best or are they leaders.

And in my estimation, with few exceptions, we have 535 of them under the capitol dome right now.

What should be apparent, or becoming apparent, to most is that they certainly won't do what is necessary to change that culture or system which rewards them so handsomely.

Until that culture is radically changed, with the K Street boys and girls sent packing, and with the outlandish monetary rewards for winning office reduced or eliminated, we'll continue to see the power seeking mediocraties, rather than the statesmen like leaders we need, trooping to Washington DC to cash in on their investments.
But where are the checks on Congress? In theory, the fear of being dinged by a campaign opponent might restrain lawmakers; in reality, given gerrymandered districts, that might not be much of a deterrent. Instead, lawmakers are surrounded by staff members, lobbyists and others whose only incentives are to satisfy their whims, not resist them.
As it stands, we have only one group that can actually make that happen by sending the proper message to these people. They meet every other year all across the nation. This year the meeting is on November 7th. Unfortunately, I don't expect much to change.

Want leaders and statesmen? Change the system. Until we do, expect more of the same, whether the name has an "R" or a "D" behind it.
 
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We tried with term limits. The GOP held one vote; it didn’t pass and they said "oh, well" and never raised the issue again. People like Orrin Hatch will continue to be inflicted over and over on the country without term limits.
 
Written By: william
URL: http://
So long as the top 1% of wage earners are paying 38% of all income taxes, there will be the K Street boys and girls.

I believe it is call "redress of grievances".
 
Written By: Neo
URL: http://
Off on a slight tangent but beyond perks I think you pay your politicians too much. In the UK the base salary for an MP is £59,095 for 2005/06 (~$111000) - which is too much- with various additional allowances. The figure I found for a US representative was $165200. Now when I lived in the states I lived very comfortably on $42000, which is less than the difference between the two figures.

I guess the counter argument is that by paying a high wage one discourages corruption or the want for finding other streams of income. Its not clear to me that this has been shown to be effective.
 
Written By: Kav
URL: http://livingrealworld.blogspot.com
So long as the top 1% of wage earners are paying 38% of all income taxes, there will be the K Street boys and girls.
Too bad income taxes only represent half of the tax base (making that 38% more like 19%) and that the other 99% who pay 80% of the taxes have little influence on K-Street.

You know my answer, make it all illegal. A public servant that accepts anything from anyone is not a public servant, they are a perk slut or a bought man/woman.

Other than that, we have exactly the system you should expect.

By the way, I would be happy to pay them $1,000,000 a year to be competent, we would save a ton in the long run.

Cap
 
Written By: CaptinSarcastic
URL: http://
You are being charitable McQ... There are precious few leaders in Congress. And their have been precious few leaders in the Presidents office.
You know my answer, make it all illegal. A public servant that accepts anything from anyone is not a public servant, they are a perk slut or a bought man/woman.

Other than that, we have exactly the system you should expect.

By the way, I would be happy to pay them $1,000,000 a year to be competent, we would save a ton in the long run.
Heh, something we can agree on.

Although I still think in the long run we wouldn’t be any worse off with a random lottery for candidates. Make it just like jury duty.
 
Written By: Keith_Indy
URL: http://
I’m inclined to believe that paying memebers of Congress $1,000,000/yr (or some such large number) would both improve the pool of candidates and cause voters to take their role far more seriously.

In nearly every other job in this country (except where unions have control (say, education) or the industry is over-regulated (say, taxi-drivers)) we tend to pay the most to the best and that generally seems to work for attracting the best. Yet in politics of all things, we seem to count on the general good nature of humanity to result in good outcomes. That clearly doesn’t work so well.

I also think, however, that in order for this to work we need to attract the right kind of people and the voters need to be smart enough to perceive them. Otherwise we’ll end up with the same sort of hacks who are paid even better.

 
Written By: Unknown
URL: http://
Heh -
the problem is, my representatives and senators are okay.
Yours are corrupt, mediocre, morons (whoever you are, where-ever you’re from,
whatever they do).

See, the problem with putting these losers into office is ’you’, not me.
 
Written By: looker
URL: http://
A truer word was never spoken, looker. All politics is local and when our elected representatives bring in the gravy, it doesn’t really matter where they are getting it. We have an almost tribal approach to our Congresspeople (our guy/gal is always good and the rest of the country’s are always bad). Until we start looking much more closely and realistically at what we are sending to Washington every two years, we’re never going to overthrow the current "perks" system.
 
Written By: The Poet Omar
URL: http://www.asecondhandconjecture.com
There was just a good article on that aspect of life the other day...

Which I linked to here
In a truly breathtaking contradiction, only 44% of our fellow citizens indicated they were “satisfied” with the general quality of medical care in the USA, but nearly 90% expressed satisfaction with their own health care providers.

In other words, nearly half of the American people believe that all doctors and hospitals stink—except for the uniquely wonderful healers and facilities they, personally, are privileged to use!

This “I’m okay; you’re pathetic” syndrome applies to every significant issue in our lives. The people of this country feel consistently pleased with their own circumstances and hopeful about their individual progress, and at the same time they take a grim and gloomy view of the nation at large.
 
Written By: Keith_Indy
URL: http://
The problem is not the "leaders," it is the task we are asking them to do. If we limited the government properly, it wouldn’t matter how (in)competent the Congresscritters are. For a more detailed version of this argument, see Arnold Kling’s TCS article .
 
Written By: Questionmark
URL: http://
But where are the checks on Congress? In theory, the fear of being dinged by a campaign opponent might restrain lawmakers; in reality, given gerrymandered districts, that might not be much of a deterrent. Instead, lawmakers are surrounded by staff members, lobbyists and others whose only incentives are to satisfy their whims, not resist them.
As it stands, we have only one group that can actually make that happen by sending the proper message to these people. They meet every other year all across the nation. This year the meeting is on November 7th. Unfortunately, I don’t expect much to change.
It used to be the individual States that had that power. The best way that I can think of to return that power is through a repeal of Amendment XVII.

When local representatives in the State legislature were held accountable for who was sent to Washington, individual voters had a lot more say in the process. Think about the fact that, for a fairyly typical district, your one vote out of 50,000 to 100,000 surely has more power than one out of several million at the State level.

In addition, most anyone can get a meeting with his or her State level legislator, and many of us may even know one or two. That closeness to the elctorate is what’s missing on Capitol Hill, particularly in the Senate. Repeal the direct election of Senators and return some of that power to hold them accountable to individual States. IMHO, that would go a long way towards reining in a runaway Congress.
 
Written By: MichaelW
URL: http://asecondhandconjecture.com
What should be apparent, or becoming apparent, to most is that they certainly won’t do what is necessary to change that culture or system which rewards them so handsomely.

As it stands, we have only one group that can actually make that happen by sending the proper message to these people. They meet every other year all across the nation. This year the meeting is on November 7th. Unfortunately, I don’t expect much to change.
Couldn’t agree with you more, my friend.

Changing the system seems problematic. As the McCain/Feingold detractors always suggest, money is free speech. And by that standard, so are five star meals, box tickets, and other perks. Not to mention lucrative employment promised after service.

What are we to do?
Publicly financed elections sound good in theory as many other ideas sound good in theory. (see “state fair”) But the practice is fraught with many problems.

Paying public servants more in order to attract better qualified persons seems like a good idea, but again, one must revert to McCain/Feingold limitations. Just because one earns more money, doesn’t mean they are immune to corruption (see Ken Lay).

Also, those who suggest paying more to public servants to attract better qualified persons must also concede the same standard to public school teachers.
So long as the top 1% of wage earners are paying 38% of all income taxes, there will be the K Street boys and girls.

I believe it is call "redress of grievances".
To buy that argument, one must believe that if the top 1% got the tax cuts they desire, they would abandon their influence.

Not likely.

Cheers.
 
Written By: PogueMahone
URL: http://ceilidhcowboy.typepad.com/
It used to be the individual States that had that power. The best way that I can think of to return that power is through a repeal of Amendment XVII.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made that argument, MW. I think it might return at least a modicum of sanity to the process. Then, given how it has evolved into the monster it is today ... maybe not.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/blog
It used to be the individual States that had that power. The best way that I can think of to return that power is through a repeal of Amendment XVII.
I like this idea.

Another thought is earmarks and pork projects.

These are a ridiculous sham.

The government takes OUR money, and then brings it back in the form of a project that primarily profits some contractor and provides some jobs, all of which might very well profit and be otherwise employed if that money wasn’t taken in the first place.

This is a perfect description of entire government today, take our money and spend it nearby as if you are doing us a favor.

Kill 100% of earmarks and pork projects unless they are legislated in stand alone bills.

If they want to spend it, they can’t pretend to be voting for a military support resolution that just happens to have a tiny addendum tacked on that spends $8b in Robert Byrd’s state. (I use Robert Byrd as an example, there are no clean Senators in this respect) Hell, bringing home the bacon (our own money) is considered a a great accomplishment for our own Senators, it’s a really bad thing for every other Senator.

Cap

 
Written By: CaptinSarcastic
URL: http://
Kill 100% of earmarks and pork projects unless they are legislated in stand alone bills.
How do we do this? Get Congress to pass a law limiting its own power? It’d be like belling the cat. Such a law would be easily repealed, and might not last more than a year.

Or we could pass a Constitutional Amendment. What chances do you think that would have of getting 2/3 vote in each house and 3/4 of state legislatures? Somewhere between diddly and squat.

The trouble is that one man’s pork is another man’s essential program. I’m with McQ and MW on this, make the Senators answerable to the states themselves.
 
Written By: steverino
URL: http://steverino.journalspace.com/
I know I’m setting myself up for a broadside from Dale... but the Fairtax would go a long way towards eliminating the K street power brokers. Remove them and you immediately remove many of the perks.

1. Fairtax
2. Repeal the 19th amendment
3. Raise their pay and increase the penalties for ’entitlements’ and actually enforce them.
 
Written By: meagain
URL: http://
There’s a strong case to be made that corruption isn’t as bad, even in this country, as it used to be.

Further improvements are hindered by not only by Congress themselves, bipartisanly, but by their continued ability to manipulate citizens against reforms, like public financing of campaigns.

The best way to lower corruption in the office is to make it unneccesary, even useless, to re-election by altering the systemic incentives.

I don’t think bringing things back to the states would help. What do state legislatures want? Pork. They’re even less concerned about broad common-good issues than federal representatives, by and large.

For further examples, look at levels of corruption in the HoR (more) vs. the Senate (less).

 
Written By: glasnost
URL: http://
... 2. Repeal the 19th amendment ...
Before you get unfairly harangued for a typo, meagain, I think you meant to say "17th Amendment." If you really did me the 19th, I’d love to hear your views on it sometime, but I’d caution you not get into them anywhere near the Lilith Fair.
 
Written By: MichaelW
URL: http://asecondhandconjecture.com
Before you get unfairly harangued for a typo, meagain, I think you meant to say "17th Amendment."
Ummm - ooops? Yes MichaelW, I meant the 17th. As a husband and father of a little girl I’d have trouble arguing for the removal of the 19th. Though... on a lighter note I must say that one of the funniset things I have ever seen was a Man Show skit where they protested on the streets of New York asking people to sign a petition to ’End Womens Suffrage’ - it was hilarious.
 
Written By: meagain
URL: http://
How do we do this? Get Congress to pass a law limiting its own power? It’d be like belling the cat. Such a law would be easily repealed, and might not last more than a year.
Like anything, it starts with one person willing to make a commitment, if the idea takes hold, it will become a movement, and maybe, eventually, a law.

How would like to be in a debate where your opponent answers a question by saying,

"I believe the fed is out of control, and as much as I’d like to bring pork barrel projects back to my home state, I don’t want to hide my projects behind other laws. I am pledging to sponsor and support legislation that requires any pork barrel spending to be passed or voted down on the merits of the project and spending alone. As long as the current system is in place, i will fight to bring as much of YOUR money back to YOUR state as possible, but this very process is sham. I am doing you no favors by bringing our money back to our state, I’d be doing you favor by not taking it in the first place. Will you take this pledge Senator Pig?"

Of course I have not heard a challenging Senate candidate recomment anything new in years, just the same tired rhetoric about blah, blah, blah....

But it can be done.

Maybe this is where bloggers can make an impact... a bunch of single issue blogs pushing and pushing... trying to keep them honest.

Cap

 
Written By: CaptinSarcastic
URL: http://
Let it truly be public service. Let them have a job. Get rid of conflict of interest and lobbyist. Shorten legislative time, say two weeks so they could use their vacation time to come to Washington. Only pay them for their expenses while congress is in session. Free mail and website.
 
Written By: VRB
URL: http://
I’d rather just create a federal referendum system. Use it to pass laws like term limits that congress will never pass on its own.
 
Written By: Jeff the Baptist
URL: http://jeffthebaptist.blogspot.com
Further improvements are hindered by not only by Congress themselves, bipartisanly, but by their continued ability to manipulate citizens against reforms, like public financing of campaigns.
Public financing? That amounts to incumbant protection, sorta the opposite of term limits.

Any politician currently in office who supports public financing is corrupt.
 
Written By: Don
URL: http://
"I believe the fed is out of control, and as much as I’d like to bring pork barrel projects back to my home state, I don’t want to hide my projects behind other laws. I am pledging to sponsor and support legislation that requires any pork barrel spending to be passed or voted down on the merits of the project and spending alone. As long as the current system is in place, i will fight to bring as much of YOUR money back to YOUR state as possible, but this very process is sham. I am doing you no favors by bringing our money back to our state, I’d be doing you favor by not taking it in the first place. Will you take this pledge Senator Pig?"
Yeah, sure, that will happen . . .

Congress can’t even stay within the limits of the 10th Amendment, and you think some pledge will work?
 
Written By: Don
URL: http://
Public financing? That amounts to incumbant protection, sorta the opposite of term limits.

There’s no logic behind this statement. The number one factor driving both corruption in government is the massive amount of provate money needed to win elections. The number one factor behind the high rate of incumbent victory in elections is their typical heavy financial advantage.

Competitive races in the house this year are all ones where the challenger is within 30 or 50 percent of incumbent money. In the 350-400 non-competitive races, the incumbent has a 10-to-1 or greater financial advantage.
A proeprly designed public financing system *eliminates* incumbent financial advantage.

This is either ideological misconception or deliberate misinformation.

 
Written By: glasnost
URL: http://
Public financing? That amounts to incumbant protection, sorta the opposite of term limits.
There’s no logic behind this statement. The number one factor driving both corruption in government is the massive amount of provate money needed to win elections. The number one factor behind the high rate of incumbent victory in elections is their typical heavy financial advantage.
There is actually a great deal of logic behind that statement, certainly more now than when Hayek first suggested in back in the 30’s and 40’s (most notably in The Road to Serfdom).

The number one cause of corruption in government is the power that the government has. People will pay a great deal of money for access to and the use of that power. Public financing of elections just more power into the hands of those elected. Essentially, it would be giving the elected officials the means of deciding who gets money and who doesn’t, which candidates are allowed and which aren’t.
Competitive races in the house this year are all ones where the challenger is within 30 or 50 percent of incumbent money. In the 350-400 non-competitive races, the incumbent has a 10-to-1 or greater financial advantage.
This has more to do with the fact that politicians have the power to draw the districts than the fact that money gets thorwn at candidates.
A proeprly designed public financing system *eliminates* incumbent financial advantage.

This is either ideological misconception or deliberate misinformation.
I think you are confusing the symptom with the cause here, glas. Money does not cause the corruption of power in politics. Power invites the corruption of money in politics.
 
Written By: MichaelW
URL: http://asecondhandconjecture.com
This has more to do with the fact that politicians have the power to draw the districts than the fact that money gets thorwn at candidates.
Would it be possible to have ’floating’ districts? Meaning, especially for the House, this year I vote for person X because he’s running for area Y. In Two years I vote for person N who is now running for area Y? I’m trying to figure out something that keeps incumbents from having such a set base that they are ’set for life’. Maybe it means redrawing the districts after every election.

Which would then beg the question... who draws the lines?
 
Written By: meagain
URL: http://
"Entitlement" is not limited to pols, it’s endemic among the famous and/or rich. Remember Leona Hemsley? Remember (fill in actor/rockstar name)?

We do have one advantage in this country; we don’t have the philosophical burden of the aristocracy to justify this sort of crap. Look at the root of the word: en-TITLE-ment. The officer corp of the British (etc) military was (and still is, to a degree) filled with upper class twits who are less qualified than the average sargeant. Why? Because they’re entitled.

When that attitude is pointed out, about half the (US) people with it have the grace to be embarrassed - the rest have had it so ingrained (especially the scions of "old money" who have had their asses kissed as long as they can remember) that it doesn’t occur to them that there’s anything wrong. But, the rest of us haven’t had that "our betters" nonsense implanted from childhood, and can, at the least, mock them.

In the case of the politicians, we can go one better, and eliminate the source. I vote against anyone who shows this attitude, and I think most pols realize that I’m not unusual. I think that that awareness is why some people have convinced themselves that Dubya is an idiot: he works (perhaps a bit too much) at being "just plain folks".
 
Written By: bud
URL: http://

 
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