Our nation’s history is peppered with these scandals large and small, yet many of them go undetected. Corruption has changed so much of US history, from the businesses and patronage systems that controlled our government during the late 19th century, aptly known as the Gilded Age, to the inseparability of money and power today.
These days, the primary forms of corruption involve representatives beholden to wealthy donors, government agencies that just absorb money without any tangible results, and government contractors who resort to under-the-table means to obtain new contracts. We can begin fixing these problems by reforming campaign finance, reconstructing the bureaucratic authorities, agencies, and departments that run our government, and redefining how government contractors are chosen.
Some of the most visible corruption in this day and age stems from the famous 2010 Citizens United v Federal Election Commission case, in which the Supreme Court defined money as speech, allowing any legal “person” to spend virtually unlimited amounts promoting their interests in government. Since then, corporate donations and super PACs have become a major force in politics. In the 2014 midterm elections, super PACs raised almost 700 million dollars, an 11-fold increase from 2010. According to a New York Times poll, 84 percent of Americans recognize that money has too much influence on political campaigns. If only 84 percent of our representatives did too.
Once officials are elected, many donors expect a quid pro quo, ensuring that those whom they supported give their interests special consideration. The official must also deal with lobbyists promoting their clients and, at times, handing out bribes. After politicians leave their posts, they frequently join the lobbying force, exercising their connections to pull hidden levers and advancing their clients’ needs, sometimes at the expense of the average American. For example, in 2011, a mining company wanted to open a mine in northern Wisconsin, but the mine would have violated the state’s environmental regulations. The next year, Governor Scott Walker was facing a recall election, and a group with close ties to him, the Wisconsin Club for Growth, solicited donations from corporations. One of the larger donations came from the company that wanted to open the mine. After Walker won the election, he eased the regulations blocking the project. One must wonder if there was more to that donation than meets the eye.
Even non-elected officials serving in government agencies are at risk of being colored by the scourge. The fact that our government is so large, and that projects big and small take so long to be approved by agencies, creates a culture friendly to bribes, as they will “grease the wheels.” These authorities, sometimes controlled by elected officials, have become yet another weapon in the sandbox fight we call politics.
The last, and possibly least known, type of corruption is the illegal activity surrounding the awarding and execution of government contracts. Our history is seasoned with these cases, from Boss Tweed’s $200 million (in today’s money) courthouse, to Governor George Ryan’s manipulation of contracts in the state of Illinois. Ryan directed contracts towards friends and insiders who gave him personal gifts and cash in return. Virtually every department in government has been tainted by this type of behavior.
Fixing these problems won’t be easy. If Congress were to pass a constitutional amendment reversing the Citizens United decision, it would open the door to endless possibilities. Congress could ban super PACs, closing the door to unlimited, anonymous campaign donations. Limits could be put on the amount one person (or entity) could donate to all campaign finance groups, or campaign spending as a whole could be capped. While it would be impossible to completely silence the siren’s wail of lobbying groups, limiting campaign donations and putting controls on super PACs would help quiet the noise. Currently, several groups are working on this issue to bring about change, and a Harvard professor named Lawrence Lessig has declared his candidacy for president. Lessig is running on the promise that he will remove restrictions on voting, fix gerrymandering, and, most importantly, reform our antiquated campaign finance laws. Yet these valiant individuals are up against the all-powerful force of money. They will have to fight long and hard for victory.
Corruption of government contracts is possibly the hardest problem to fix. Aside from conducting periodic, random audits on all contractors and contract-giving bodies, there is no sure legislative way to prevent infractions. Yet auditing these institutions would be hard. One could make a strong case that the Fourth Amendment, which states that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized,” prevents these random searches from taking place. Obtaining a warrant is impossible unless someone comes forward with evidence that would justify conducting a search. Given the buried, secretive nature of corruption, where very few aside from the racketeers know what is taking place, that is unlikely. Secondary means, like imposing more severe punishments on offenders, greater rewards for whistle-blowers, and closer monitoring of the contract process would greatly help reduce graft. A more overarching solution would take a restructuring of our government’s processes to seriously diminish the levels of illegal activity; seeing as our congress is locked in partisan struggles, this would be near impossible.
Even in the Gilded Age, populist movements could change the country. Congressmen were elected on shoestring budgets, and then wielded extraordinary power. But those who were not honest were uncovered by muckrakers. It may have been an age of unbridled corruption, but it was also one of vicious accountability in the press, if not in the law.
But when Occupy Wall Street marched through New York, it drew attention to our society’s inequalities from around the world — except, it seems, our own Congress. Since then, there has not been any legislation passed by our government to address the problems spoken of by the movement. In a way, this is not surprising. If a law is favored by only 20 percent of the top 10 percent of our population, it has a 1-in-5 chance of passing. If it is favored by 80 percent of the aforementioned group, it has just under a 50 percent chance of passing. It is depressing that we just watch this outrage pass us by, letting super PACs and campaign donations have more say in things they shouldn’t, and allowing politicians to distribute jobs to people who don’t deserve them in return for some cash or a free trip. The Supreme Court was right, money is speech — very loud speech.
Corruption is not limited to just the United States; it is a world problem. People will do almost anything to promote themselves or gain power. From the smallest bribe to the biggest super PAC, it runs rampant in our society. Very few are satisfied with what they have; people always want more — more power, more money, more recognition — and sometimes they are desperate enough to infringe on common moral judgement and the law to gain it. If we don’t fix these problems soon, the rot at the center of our government will grow too large, too powerful, and may become undefeatable.
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Uday Schultz is 14 years old and in ninth grade at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. He enjoys looking at and editing maps, reading, hiking, and debating.
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