In 1992, Eddie Murphy’s “The Distinguished Gentleman” offered a scathing parody of corporate influence and self-enrichment within the halls of Congress. As the film’s 30th anniversary approaches, Congress and corporate America have an opportunity to learn from the film’s lessons and reform some of the practices that continue to erode public faith in government.
In the film, Murphy stars as a con artist named Thomas Jefferson Johnson who overhears his local congressman’s tales of corruption and, upon the lawmaker’s death, seizes an opportunity to exploit name recognition and voter apathy to succeed him. What follows is a hilarious sendup of pork-barrel politics and legal corruption before the novice politician changes course to champion his constituents’ interests in the face of corporate and political pressure.
At the time, one review noted, “The comic premise — that the successful crooks end up in government — … lags behind the average viewer’s cynicism.” That assessment has proven accurate. Over the last three decades, Congress has been plagued by consistently low approval ratings, with one study finding that Americans’ perceptions about unethical behavior shape their views about the efficacy of their elected leaders. While many of the abuses parodied in ”The Distinguished Gentleman” — such as lobbyist-financed lunches — have since been outlawed, many practices remain that promote cynicism about ethics in government and money in politics.
“When Murphy’s Thomas Jefferson Johnson enters politics, his ambitions don’t extend beyond insider trading and corporate perks. While this depiction is hardly representative, it remains hard to shake.”
When Murphy’s Thomas Jefferson Johnson enters politics, his ambitions don’t extend beyond insider trading and corporate perks. While this depiction is hardly representative, it remains hard to shake. Almost 30 years later, we have a unique opportunity for Congress and corporate America to play a role in bolstering trust in our political system. Since 2012, the STOCK Act has banned members of Congress from using nonpublic information learned through their official duties for personal profit and required regular reporting of their stock trades. However, the proliferation of stock trading by members from both parties following private briefings during the coronavirus pandemic have led many to question the effectiveness of these rules.
The constant trickle of potential conflicts of interest created by members investing in companies whose industries they oversee and violations of the STOCK Act’s reporting requirements continue to generate negative press and undermine public trust. These transactions led many Americans to question how some in Congress are outperforming the market and whether they are making decisions in their constituents’ best interests or out of concern for their own stock portfolios.
Fortunately, there are bills recently introduced in Congress that would limit or ban members of Congress and their spouses from trading individual stocks. Unlike other ethics reforms currently being debated, these measures have growing bipartisan support in the House and the Senate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also signaled an openness to ban lawmakers from trading individual stocks after voicing her initial skepticism. Republican leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also said he would consider supporting these policies. In the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that he supports legislation to address congressional stock trading and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is apparently “prepared to look at it.” There are also reported plans for a congressional hearing as soon as next week to discuss potential legislative changes. In a Congress that has been marked by Republican recalcitrance to reasonable ethics and democracy reforms, these events suggest a rare opportunity to enact significant and bipartisan change.
Another potential opportunity for reform lies in limiting corporate dollars’ influence on public policy through corporate political action committees. In the film, Murphy’s character is advised that he will “need new friends” with ties to corporate PACs to ensure his reelection. Studies confirm that many corporations use affiliated PACs “to boost the campaigns of candidates aligned with their financial goals.” In the 2020 election cycle, PACs representing business interests contributed more than $175 million to federal candidates and party committees, dwarfing contributions from labor unions and issue-focused groups. Our existing legal regime creates an uneven playing field that gives corporate interests an advantage over average Americans.
Some elected officials are trying to change that. For example, Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) recently introduced legislation prohibiting for-profit corporations from establishing and managing PACs. To date, the bill does not yet have any Republican co-sponsors. While banning corporate PACs may have less momentum on Capitol Hill, this is an area where corporate America can demonstrate leadership and its commitment to change.
Following the Capitol insurrection, many companies pledged to end or reconsider their political giving to members of Congress, especially to those who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election. It was not long before some of these companies resumed their corporate giving to the aptly named “Sedition Caucus,” reflecting the same cynicism captured in public opinion polls and popular movies like “The Distinguished Gentleman.” However, many in the business community have also pushed for reform that has left a lasting impact on our political system.
In the year since the insurrection, more than half of the nearly 250 companies that said they would evaluate their political donations have not donated to politicians who voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results. Experts indicate there has been a significant decline in corporate giving to the election objectors in Congress, including bans from companies like Dow Chemical, Lyft, Microsoft and Airbnb. Corporate giants like Hewlett-Packard and others have taken their stance a step further and shut down their corporate PACs altogether. Our democracy would be well-served if more companies followed these examples of corporate citizenship.
Thirty years ago, Eddie Murphy captured public sentiment about corporate influence on political Washington with “The Distinguished Gentleman.” While the film’s depiction of Congress was exaggerated even in its time, Congress continues to face justifiable skepticism on matters of ethics. Leadership within Congress and the business community can go a long way to implementing laws and practices that will improve the functioning of our democracy. American voters and consumers should demand nothing less.