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Corruption and the Constitution

Wed Jun 29th, 2016

It is Zephyr Teachout’s argument that our constitution is endangered by corruption that undermines the idea of a government responsible to the people.  If government is responsible to interests, including foreign interests (as it is), then the people have lost an important part of their sovereignty. People, not corporations and not lobbies (not the NRA nor AIPAC) representing corporations or foreign counties, elect our representatives.  To the extent our representatives are beholden in any shape or form to an interest that is not the people, those representatives have been suborned, their loyalty compromised.

We share Teachout’s concern for the integrity of the election process; we are wary of the power of corporations and lobbying groups that use money and fear to entrap and then control our elected representatives. The donors of PACs that benefit one, or a small number, of candidates for office expect their investments to pay a return.  Loyalty is purchased.  AIPAC and the NRA use similar tactics, carrots and sticks.  They keep track of every vote; they rate every member of the house or senate.  Warnings are sent with the first sign of wondering off the course. A second infraction can be fatal.  Not only will the funds dry up, but there will be money for a primary opponent.  Many office holders have lost their primaries because they voted their conscience and not as instructed by the moneyed, powerful interest group.  Why didn't the Senate vote for a modest change in the guns laws?  Because the NRA blocked it.  Too many senators were afraid to take on the NRA.  

Is this corruption?  Corruption is just a word.  The fact is that our elected representatives have lost their ability to act freely, according to their conscience, according to the interests of their constituents.   They are intimidated, bought, suborned.  This is not healthy for our body politic.  It is an undermining of the constitutional principle that our elected representatives represent the people and not entities that arrive with a fat check or otherwise exert their power to intimidate.    

The Supreme Court has ruled that as a matter of law corruption is limited to bribery, a standard from the criminal law.  According to the Supreme Court, there is nothing illegal about a corporation or a foreign interest to influence an elected official by paying that official large amounts of money or conferring other favors.  Corruption, however, is also a civil matter when we are talking about fairness of elections and the ability of elected officials to act free of undue influence.  That is a matter that voters should be concerned about.   

Teachout, in her book, Corruption in America, says that it is the legislature itself that is able to police improper influence via money or threats.  Neither the executive nor the courts have that capacity.  Can a bought legislature unburden itself of the corrupting influence of money, PACs, and threats?  Will full disclosure alone be sufficient?  We will soon find out. 

For further reading: Corruption in America by Zephyr Teachout; Buying the Vote by Robert E. Mutch; David Cole, “The Terror of our Guns” New York Review of Books, July 14, 2016; The Israel Lobby by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.