Reducing corruption is a top priority for Americans as they look at the upcoming elections. Yet the candidates are not discussing the issue. Will the reporters posing questions in the presidential debates raise the topic? I doubt it.
Corruption has been a taboo presidential election topic for too long. Yet, according to a USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted from July 19-22, 2012, the American voter is more concerned about federal government corruption than any other issue except for job creation. I believe there are four compelling reasons that are combining to build mounting public distrust of government.
First, the sheer magnitude of cash in the elections has a nasty smell. Not since "Watergate" in 1972 have major financial contributors to presidential election campaigns been able to hide their identity as so many of them are now able to do. The Supreme Court asserted in its 2010 Citizens United ruling that as part of the Constitutional right to free speech, organizations and individuals could use their money as they wish, privately and anonymously, in support of whatever political views they might hold.
This is a huge blow to transparency and an invitation to corrupt practices. This year's elections may involve more than $2 billion in campaign cash and it is hard to believe that the biggest donors will not expect to enjoy powerful influence if their candidates win office. The voter sees this and is appalled. The 2008 U.S. elections involved close to $1.8 billion of campaign cash -- how much of it bought special access, special favors and special influence to those with politicians to those who made particularly generous contributions, and those who "bundled" the mega-contributions on behalf of candidates?
Second, many prominent politicians have been brought to justice in recent years by courageous public prosecutors. As each new case hits the headlines, so over time the combined impact is bound to damage the image of all engaged in politics. Rod Blagojevich, former Governor of the State of Illinois, started a 14-year-jail term this year on being found guilty on 17 charges of fraud and corruption -- the harshest sentence that any politician in the U.S. has received in modern times for graft. From Illinois to New Jersey and New York State, to Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio and the U.S. capital of Washington D.C., prominent politicians and public officials have been indicted for corruption and, in many instances, current investigations into corrupt politics are underway. The public reads the stories in the local media, one upon another, as a sick compendium is compiled.
Third, the 2008/2009 financial crisis, which devastated the economy, owed much to the transformation by Wall Street of financial services firms into casinos. But, none of the leaders of the biggest mortgage companies and banks have been indicted for wrong-doing and many of them, who lost their jobs, took home multimillion dollar compensation packages. For many Americans there is an abiding sense that Wall Street financiers participated in massive corruption and got away with it, thanks to their cozy ties to the government agencies that are meant to be regulating our financial system in the public interest.
And, this takes me to the fourth reason why Americans are so concerned about government corruption: They see Washingto, D.C. as a cesspool of special interest lobbyists who have made elected officials so beholden to them that Congress is in permanent gridlock, the federal budget is a disaster, the economy is faltering, and a host of enterprises, who engage armies of lobbyists, are prospering.
Lobbying is a legitimate, indeed an important, part of a democracy where advocates for all manner of causes have the opportunity to "educate" elected officials on their issues. But, when the lobbyists pledge elected officials large sums for their election campaigns, provide them with private corporate jets for their week-end use and entertain them extravagantly, then there are grounds for concern.
Professor James Thurber of American University, a leading authority on lobbying, noted in his 2011 book Obama in Office: The First Two Years:
Lobbying is the third largest enterprise in our nation's capital after government and tourism, with an estimated 27,611 (plus) full-time professional lobbyists registered by Congress representing virtually every type of interest in America. It has been estimated that the number of persons employed in Washington who are either lobbyists or associated with them in some way is well over 100,000. Spending by registered lobbyists has increased thirty percent in the last five years to $2.1 billion. That comes to $177 million per Member per year or $407,599 per month per Member. That is just the tip of the lobbying expenditures since it only includes what is recorded by registered lobbyists in public records. It does not include money spend for grassroots organizing, coalition building, issue advertising on television, radio, and in the print media, advocacy on the Internet and websites. Some estimate the total spent on lobbying is closer to $8 billion per year in Washington.
The candidates in this election do not want to discuss corruption because they have no good suggestions on how to fix our system of government. The leading TV political pundits may decry the scale of money in politics, but they are so engaged in reporting and discussing the latest vitriol spewed by one party against the other, and by one candidate against her or his opponent, that they evade the vital, yet extremely complicated issue of corruption across the whole of our political system. The voter knows it and is increasingly frustrated and disenchanted. This poses a fundamental threat to our democratic way of life.