There are two types of political corruption. The first is fodder for tabloids and Hollywood movies – POLITICIAN TAKES BRIBE! This type of corruption is rare outside of Illinois. But as Auditor Tom Schweich has explained, corruption goes beyond that which is illegal.
The second-type of corruption is more pervasive, and it might be best described as the short-circuiting of the ordinary political process through undue influence. This is the corruption that doesn’t uproot an elected official’s position or unseat any fundamental beliefs, but it may determine an issue’s priority and, when there’s uncertainty, may move them to act in a way they otherwise wouldn’t.
“Short-circuiting” works in different ways – through campaign contributions, gifts, special treatment, false friendship, and access. It causes elected officials to pause before acting against – or just not in lockstep with – their political patrons. “Short-circuiting” can move a legislator from undecided to a yes, from no to undecided (and then eventually to yes), or merely from hell no! to a quiet no. “Short-circuiting” can also move what would otherwise be an afterthought, “oh, if we have some extra time to get it done” legislation, into the “priority” category.
Is it worse in Missouri than other states? Well, we aren’t Illinois. There aren’t any recent prominent examples of prosecutions for Type-1 corruption. But Missouri’s ethics laws are the weakest in the country. We are the only state with unlimited gifts, unlimited campaign contributions, weak campaign finance transparency laws, and no ban on either legislators’ consulting or lobbying during or in the immediate aftermath of public service.
The vast majority of elected officials start (and continue) in public service for the right reasons. But they are not angels. Madison observed, “If men were angels, government would not be necessary.” If politicians were angels, ethics laws would not be necessary either. Power both corrupts and is a magnet to the already corrupted. Where you find power, you will also find scoundrels and rogues, whose existence crosses parties, regions, and ideology.
Much like I wrote about prosecutor recusals in police shootings, public perception matters even where’s there’s no actual short-circuiting of the political process. And the public cannot and does not like what it presently sees. That’s why on Monday, I joined Rep. Caleb Rowden (R – Columbia) in filing several bills to add some backbone to Missouri’s ethics laws.
These bills would, among other things, increase transparency by (1) requiring immediate reporting of contributions over $500 received during the legislative session, (2) requiring any entity that spends more than 25 percent of its annual budget on election advertising to file reports listing its donors, (3) requiring all lobbyist expenditures outside the state of Missouri to be reported within 14 days, and (4) requiring individualized reporting of all lobbyist expenditures made outside the capitol.House Bill 228, which I sponsored, will institute a one-year waiting period before a legislator can become a lobbyist.
I anticipate that a bill capping gifts will be filed soon as well. In addition to these measures, I expect that the House will amend its operating rules to put some ethics changes in place immediately. Many similar bills have also been pre-filed in the Missouri Senate. I believe ethics reform has tangible momentum and I am hopeful that several bills will pass in the next legislative session.