Our Corrupt Politics: It’s Not All Money

Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images
Jack Abramoff (left) leaving a federal courthouse with his attorney, Abbe Lowell, after pleading guilty to felony charges stemming from his lobbying activities, Washington, D.C., January 3, 2006

In 1982, Mississippi senator John Stennis was chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Stennis was a senator of the old school—literally. When he retired in 1989, after forty-one years, he was the chamber’s most senior member, and the second-longest-serving member in the Senate’s history. And so he did things a little differently than we’re used to today. Asked by a colleague to hold a fund-raiser with defense contractors, Stennis recoiled. “Would that be proper?” he asked. “I hold life and death over those companies. I don’t think it would be proper for me to take money from them.”

Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig recounts Stennis’s story in Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It (as does Robert G. Kaiser in the excellent So Damn Much Money*). It is a story, Lessig writes, that

reflects a change in norms. Stennis was no choirboy. But his hesitation reflected an understanding that I doubt a majority of Congress today would recognize. There were limits—even just thirty years ago—that seem as antiquated today as the wigs our Framers wore while drafting the Constitution.

Crucially, those limits were not always legal. Stennis wasn’t concerned that holding the fund-raiser would break the law. He was worried it wasn’t “proper.” He wasn’t worried about breaking the law. He was worried about breaking with the prevailing norms on Capitol Hill. This, Lessig says, is what has changed.

“Would that be proper?” is not, it seems, a question that ever occurred to disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. His lawbreaking landed him in jail. His norm-breaking created a national scandal, and arguably lost Republicans control of Congress in 2006. But consider who it is that Abramoff mainly lobbied for, and what it is they actually wanted.

Abramoff lobbied for the Northern Mariana Islands, which sought exemption from certain labor rules for a variety of Native American tribes, which sought to continue a low-regulation, low-tax environment for their casinos, and for defense contractor Tyco, which wanted a tax cut. He was, in these efforts, successful. Arguably too successful. But these are hardly the life-and-death issues of American politics. In a sense, his tactics could only be so extreme, and his wins so decisive, because his issues were so small. What politicians do about the Northern Marianas moves few voters and receives few headlines. Had he been waging more high-profile wars, his hardball tactics would have come to light much sooner, and his career would likely have collapsed far earlier. As every child knows, it’s easier to break the rules when no one is watching.

Abramoff might be the most prominent example of the corruption that has infected our political system, but he…

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