Tuesday was the perfect day for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to debut ambitious new legislation designed to combat government corruption. President Trump’s former “fixer” Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to banking and tax law violations, as well as violating campaign finance laws “at the direction of a candidate for federal office,” while Trump’s former campaign boss Paul Manafort was found guilty by a Virginia jury on eight counts of tax and bank fraud. And just as the day was ending, news broke that Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), an early Trump backer, was indicted for misusing campaign funds for personal expenses big and small, including dental bills and a trip to Italy.
And this sort of behavior isn’t even what Warren is targeting.
Warren’s bill takes on what is usually termed the legalized corruption, the dirty dealings of Washington. Among other things, the legislation would:
- increase salaries for congressional staffers, so they will be less tempted to “audition” for lobbying jobs while working for government
- ban the “revolving door” for elected officials
- expand how lobbying is defined to include anyone who is paid to lobby the federal government as well as halt permitting any American to take money from “foreign governments foreign individuals and foreign companies” for lobbying purposes.
- prohibit elected officials from holding investments in individual stocks
- require that presidential candidates make their tax returns public
The goal? To make government once again responsive to voters, not the corporations and the wealthy donors responsible for the vast majority of the $3.37 billion spent lobbying Washington in 2017. That money buys results, but only for the people paying the bills. As Warren said:
Corruption has seeped into the fabric of our government, tilting thousands of decisions away from the public good and toward the desires of those at the top. And, over time, bit by bit, like a cancer eating away at our democracy, corruption has eroded Americans’ faith in our government.
This is not hyperbole. A 2014 academic study found the U.S. government policy almost always reflected the desires of the donor class over the will of the majority of voters, while a 2016 report by the progressive think tank Demos determined political donors have distinctly different views from most Americans on issues ranging from financial regulation to abortion rights. A tax reform package that showers benefits on corporations and the wealthiest among us? Consider it done. But a crackdown on drug pricing, buttressing of Social Security without cutting benefits, expansion of Medicare and Medicaid, or progress combating global warming, all of which majorities say they want? Not so fast.
It’s not just what laws get passed, but who is held accountable under those laws. No one in a high position went to jail for the financial crisis. Foreclosure fraud on the part of the banks was punished with a slap on the wrist – if that. All too many corporations treat their customers with complete impunity, as scandals ranging from the Equifax hack to Wells Fargo’s many misdeeds demonstrate. It feels as if there is no one minding the store — if you are rich and connected enough, that is.
This behavior leaves us enraged, feeling like outsiders peering in on our own elected government. A Gallup poll found 3 out of 4 voters surveyed described corruption as “widespread throughout the government” — in 2010. There’s a reason Trump’s claim he would “drain the swamp” resonated. No one, after all, thought Trump was clean. His stated argument was, in fact, the opposite. He claimed his success a businessman navigating the corrupt U.S. system gave him just the right set of insight and tools to clean up Washington.
We all know now that was just another audacious Trump con. The tax reform package almost certainly benefited his own bottom line, though we don’t know that for sure since he has not released his taxes. Andrew Wheeler, the acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is a former lobbyist for the coal industry. Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, is a former top executive of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. At the Education Department, the revolving door is alive and well, with former George W. Bush administration officials who went on to work at for-profit institutions of higher education returning to government service to advise Betsy De Vos who is — surprise! — cutting the sector multiple breaks.
And all this, under our current laws, is allowed.
To be clear, this is not a matter of Republicans Good, Democrats Bad. As Warren put it on Tuesday, “This problem is far bigger than Trump.” An Obama-era attempt to slow the revolving door was riddled with loopholes that allowed the appointment of Wall Street insiders to too many regulatory posts. Subsequently, more than a few Obama appointees have gone on to work for big business as lobbyists.
Corruption, legal or illegal, rots the system from the inside out. In an environment where it seems anything goes, it’s not hard to think that, well, anything goes — like Cohen and Manafort, who almost certainly would have gotten away with their behavior if not for the Mueller investigation, and Hunter, who ignored multiple warnings from his campaign treasurer and instead continued to do such things as pass off the purchase of a pair of shorts as sporting equipment intended for use by “wounded warriors.”
There is, of course, no way Warren’s bill would clean up this entire festering mess. But healthy democracies need government officials — elected and unelected — to behave both ethically and honestly. Warren is putting our governing and business classes on notice. Simply saying the law is on your side isn’t good enough. The voters won’t stand for that.