As Washington Becomes a Swamp of Corruption, Can Legislation Clean Up the Mess?

We are in the midst of a corruption crisis.

In the past few weeks alone, Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former attorney, pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws and other charges. Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was convicted of tax fraud, bank fraud and failing to disclose a bank account. Two strong and early Trump supporters have landed in hot water as well: Former US Rep. Chris Collins was indicted on insider trading, while US Rep. Duncan Hunter and his wife were charged with using more than $250,000 in campaign funds to pay for family trips, golf outings and other personal expenses.

That’s just been in the past few weeks.

Despite President Trump’s campaign promises to “drain the swamp” in Washington, his blatant disregard for the rules and norms designed to protect against corruption began immediately, and have extended to nearly every part of the executive branch. From right after the election when his inaugural committee raised millions from influence-seekers without accountability for how the money was spent, to his early days in office when he reversed important transparency measures like White House visitor log disclosure, to the wealthy and corporate-interest-conflicted personnel he has put in place, Trump’s blatant attempt to profit off his presidency is dramatically increasing the risk that government decisions will be compromised by corruption.

Corruption of our system predates this president, of course, and extends beyond the executive branch to Congress. Elected officials spend hours each week dialing for dollars from millionaires to fund their campaigns, and lobbyists for industry capitalize on lawmakers’ fundraising targets to gain influence and shape policy. We need sweeping reforms to tackle this culture of corruption, and now, lawmakers are stepping up to the plate. The latest is US Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts). Her new Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act contains many of the bold new proposals we need to start the cleanup.

At the bill’s introduction, Senator Warren said, “Our government systematically favors the rich over the poor, the donor class over the working class, the well-connected over the disconnected. This is deliberate, and we need to call it for what it is — corruption, plain and simple.”

Her message resonates, and not just with Democrats. In a new poll conducted by GBA Strategies for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, more than half of the Republicans surveyed (56 percent) said Congress is not checking the Trump administration’s corruption enough, and 57 percent of Independents agreed.

Americans don’t believe that politicians will tackle the nation’s very real problems until they tackle the corrupting influences on our democracy. Americans want economic security; safe workplaces; affordable college education; a universal system of health care; clean air, water and land; and more — but they don’t think that elected officials can or will address those issues until our democracy is repaired.

Senator Warren’s reform measures would get to the core of the corruption problem by surgically striking at the connections between corruption, corporate capture of government and moneyed lobbyist influence on policy.

Among other things, the bill closes the revolving door between jobs in government and in lobbying, including halting the “golden parachutes” that companies, particularly banks, give executives to cushion their landing in Washington. (Senator Warren pointed to the more than $280 million Goldman Sachs gave to Gary Cohen when he left the bank to run Trump’s economic team.) The bill also ensures that after leaving office — for the rest of their lives — appointed federal officials won’t become lobbyists. Furthermore, the bill bans any executive of a company found guilty of breaking the law from taking a job in the federal government for six years.

At the bill’s launch, Senator Warren reaffirmed the bipartisan nature of this problem. When she was asked by Dan Merica of CNN whether there were any Democratic agency heads she would call out for being in the pocket of industry, she flagged Obama-era Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White, citing her “light touch regulation,” and noted that White never finished the much-needed rule that would require corporations to disclose their political spending.

The bill also strikes at the heart of corporate lobbying by stopping registered lobbyists from writing campaign checks or gifts to anyone running for or in federal office, and by creating a new tax on corporations that run big lobbying campaigns when they spend more than $500,000.

Circling back to the abuses of the most corrupt administration of our generation, the bill also bans elected officials, cabinet members and other senior government players from owning or trading individual stocks. This is a mechanism to cut back on the rich gaining inside information in government and then profiting from their public service to become richer.

Our democracy is mired in a crisis of corruption, and only foundational reforms that reaffirm the principles of fairness, equity, ethics and accountability can begin to fix it.

From crisis, opportunities arise, and we must seize this moment of opportunity. While it is unlikely that Warren’s legislation will be passed in this legislative session, lawmakers should realize Americans on both sides of the aisle want bold systematic changes that realize the promise of representational democracy. Only when our elections and government at every level represent our communities — not corporations and special interests — will we be able to pass the policies needed by the nation.