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Big Money Doesn't Just Corrupt Politics. It Also Corrupts People

David Callahan

One way to think about politics today is that we have a bunch of public servants making chump change who spend an inordinate amounts of time hanging out with rich people, their noses pushed up against the window of an affluent lifestyle that they can't afford. Bad things happen in this situation. Not just to democracy, but to people's values. 

If you look at case after case where elected officials have gone astray ethically, you'll see a familiar pattern: often some hardworking middle-age pol, earning less than a 28-year old law firm associate, succumbs to temptation and starts accepting goodies from a well-heeled lobbyist or donor. Then it's all downhill from there. 

The fall of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell is a perfect example, with the (not uncommon) wrinkle that it was the pol's spouse who was hankering for the finer things in life. Today's Times has the sordid details. The paper reports:

"Virginia’s first lady needed a designer dress for her husband’s inauguration.

When a political patron offered to buy her an Oscar de la Renta gown, fit for ladies who lunch or a Vogue cover shoot, Maureen McDonnell jumped, according to federal prosecutors, until an aide to her husband, Gov. Bob McDonnell, vetoed the gift. Ms. McDonnell sent off an angry email: “We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!!”

The first couple of Virginia buried in the red is an unseemly specter, but entirely understandable. McDonnell is a former Army officer who spent 25 years in politics before being elected governor. It's hard to imagine he ever made much money during that quarter century of climbing the political ladder in a state with a pretty high cost of living. As governor, he made $175,000, but the McDonnells have five children and his wife, a former Redskins cheerleader, was mainly a stay-at-home mom.

Boy, does that sound like a standard recipe for financial stress these days: a couple that is professionally and personally successful, but doesn't really make enough money to be part of the upper-middle class, with all the usual expectations of that station—such as a nice wardrobe, a decent home, newish cars, college tuition for the kids, and the occasional vacation. 

Now toss in a bunch of rich donors and lobbyists buzzing around the McDonnells as they move higher, with their private jets and fancy homes and expensive jewels and, well, you can imagine how the couple could end up on a slippery slope. Maureen has been depicted as a shopaholic with upscale tastes, but in other ways she comes across as a fairly typical strapped American. At one point, she reportedly told a wealthy supporter that she didn't know how to pay for her daughter's wedding at the Executive Mansion and wanted help with catering expenses and paying off $50,000 in credit card debt.

I've been following ethics scandals in politics for a long time, and I've seen some version of this same story repeated over and over. While much has been made of how many millionaires serve in Congress, many elected officials and public officials live with strong financial pressures, making far less not just than the donors they must cultivate, but many of the people they want to college and law school with. And these pressures, along with status anxieties, are often evident when the details of the scandals emerge. The Times writes about McDonnell:

“It is a quintessentially human story, isn’t it?” said Paul Begala, a Democratic consultant who was an aide to President Bill Clinton. “McDonnell spent his career in the military, then in the legislature, then as attorney general. He never made any money. All of a sudden you’re mixing with these billionaires.”

Yes, it is a human story, but it's also a political story that speaks volumes about our democratic system. It's a story that can be multiplied innumerable times at every level of public life across the nation where, alas, bribery—either explicit or implicit—remains far too common. 

Less harmful than outright corruption, but also insidious, is how quickly public servants will leap at the chance to make more money working for the other side—as lobbyists who pester their former colleagues on behalf of wealthy interests. 

What's the solution here? Well, tougher rules to keep lobbyists away from politicians would be helpful, and—of course—public financing of campaigns could make a big difference. But consideration should also be given to raising the pay of public officials at all levels, so they can afford a reasonable standard of living while they serve their fellow citizens. 

Think of it this way: We taxpayers can either pony up one way—through public financing and higher salaries—or we can pony up in another way, as outside money exerts influence over public officials to win special perks, such as tax subsidies. 

This is a pretty easy choice.