On Tuesday, Republican congressman Aaron Schock announced his resignation in the wake of several damaging revelations. Politico reported that Schock billed his campaign for 90,000 miles that he never actually drove. The Chicago Tribune reported that property Schock owned was tied up in a questionable real estate deal involving some of his donors.
What to make of all this?
For starters, an Illinois politician resigning amid ethical questions is not uncommon! (Of course, it must be noted that Schock’s district is centered between Peoria and Springfield, far away from Chicago.)
That being said, Schock’s fall from grace adds to a growing list of pols engaging in questionable behavior: Harry Reid sending government money to donors of a charity connected to him; the Clintons accepting foreign money through their foundation; Robert Menendez allegedly taking gifts from a donor looking for favorable Medicare regulations.
I’m tempted to react by shouting, “Oh goody!” What perfect timing, seeing as how my book on political corruption just came out. In the book, I argue that corruption is an endemic feature of the body politic. Four examples of questionable dealings in a row would seem to illustrate that point perfectly. However, my Tocquevillian notion of self-interest rightly understood keeps me from jumping for joy. Corruption is a huge problem – I can’t truly be happy about it.
There are a couple conclusions to draw, not just from the Schock revelations, but from the latest bout of shady deals.
First, corruption is a persistent problem, which suggests it is not just about the people who happen to be in power. James Madison understood that it gets back to the motivations of politicians. Sure, they can be stimulated to act by the interests of their constituents, but they’re also inspired by personal power, wealth, esteem, and so on. Madison argued that these selfish motivations “are proved by experience to be most prevalent.” So, it is very important that the rules of the game are set up in a way to discourage politicians from acting solely for their own good.
Second, the rules of today’s game are set up terribly. The entire institution of Congress is pretty much based upon a conflict of interest: legislators sell public policy to the highest bidders, who in turn fund their campaigns, lobby them aggressively, and find ways to support them financially.
Return to those four instances mentioned above -- they all involve public figures attempting to curry favor with private interests. The problem is that some of the alleged actions are illegal, while others are legal. The fact that quid pro quos are often legal facilitates a culture of corruption, a widespread belief that the way things are is the way they should be. Politicians have an incentive not to avoid such dealings, but to transact in ways that keep matters sufficiently discreet. That is not good.
Third, it is interesting that none of this was uncovered by the department or branch where the misbehavior was happening. News reporters unearthed the questionable practices of the Clintons, Reid, and Schock. Meanwhile, it was a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice that got Menendez in such hot water. Yet both the Congress and the executive departments all have elaborate ethical protocols, supposedly designed to enable them to police themselves.
That is reminiscent of an old adage about regulatory capture. Back in 1892, Richard Olney -- soon to be attorney general for Grover Cleveland -- advised a railroad executive to support the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), whose ostensible goal was to regulate the railroads. He argued to his crony: