Revelations that top aides and associates of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may have engineered a massive traffic jam in northern New Jersey as a form of political retribution have sparked debate over the impact on the ebullient governor’s chances at the presidency in 2016. There is little to no debate over whether what the aides apparently did was actually wrong. It was.
But this is an example of what from the hills of Vermont looks like a case of old-fashioned bare-knuckles politics, if not corruption. That kind of old-school stuff should be distinguished from the modern form of political corruption, which goes on in plain sight.
In New Jersey, no bribes were paid, no favors passed along, as far as we know. The powerful simply used their power to cause trouble in the home of a political opponent. This kind of behavior on behalf of a politician (although Christie thus far has denied any knowledge of his aides’ activity, calling one a “liar” no fewer than 15 times in a Thursday news conference) is easy to judge as wrong and even easier to find clear punishment for.
But in this day and age, political corruption has taken on the form of indifference to injustice and inequality at the highest levels of government. The political class has been corrupted by the money and power of the wealthy class, to the detriment of the average American. The modern form of corruption is that the game in Washington is more and more emphatically rigged in the favor of the rich and powerful — and it’s all technically above board.
Lobbying — which in practice means lobbyists working to influence the legislative process on behalf of their clients — is increasing in importance compared with the elections process.
A 2009 study of lobbying by major corporations around a 2004 federal tax holiday found the return on investment for this lobbying to be worth roughly $220 in tax reductions for every $1 spent. Other studies have found similar or greater returns on investment and show that spending money to influence lawmakers is a sound investment. Given that lobbying is a roughly $3.5 billion industry today, the potential implications of what that spending may bring in are staggering. And more to the point, that $3.5 billion dwarfs the roughly $750 million in campaign donations nationally.
This influence and use of money as power is far more insidious than the type of corruption displayed by the New Jersey aides. And here in Vermont, that monied influence is no less pervasive. Many people will tell you that Vermont is different, that the state benefits from its small size and the resulting easy access by regular people to our legislators and public officeholders. But the smallness and closeness of our state also means any one politician doesn’t have to go far before tripping over a conflict of interest, and it means that a small investment in influence can reap big returns.
Look through any tax bill as it makes its way toward the governor’s desk and you’ll find multiple exceptions carved out by lobbyists on behalf of companies both national and local. You’ll find organized groups having outsized influence, from trade groups to unions and political parties. In many ways these groups do act in the best interest of Vermonters, but the opportunity for abuse is ever present.
This is why the so-called campaign finance reform that has moved forward in the House is disappointing and in some ways irrelevant. The current version of the bill, which was voted out of the House on Thursday, would increase contribution limits and allow unlimited funds to be transferred from political parties to individual candidates. But it does not tackle the modern forms of political corruption, which happen well after the election is over.
Vermonters — including our politicians — want to believe that we are exceptional. In many ways we are, but that should not excuse us from putting in basic protections for the average citizen against the often overwhelming web of money, connections and influence that shapes policy in Montpelier.
A comprehensive proposal to establish these basic protections — currently Vermont has limited ethics laws governing our politicians — was released by the advocacy group Campaign For Vermont early this year. The proposal calls for laws that would establish an independent ethics commission; require statewide officials to disclose financial interests each year; require legislators and statewide officeholders to identify conflicts of interest; require disclosure of employment duties; prohibit the use of public resources for private gain; and address nepotism and patronage issues.
Campaign finance reform is important, but equally important are these ethical reforms, which would go further toward ensuring a fair political process beyond the elections.
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