January 7, 2006
There was creeping
dismay about Congress before the Abramoff indictment. Government
spending was out of hand, the president's refusal to exercise
the veto began to seem almost as if he were bound by a secret
oath, supplementary spending bills began to sound as though written
for "Saturday Night Live." There is national disgust,
but it is never quite clear whether this can be transformed into
effective action for reform. There are many ideas floating about
on measures that might be taken.
It was back in the
early '70s that national attention was given to reforms focusing
on money in the area of campaign financing. Efforts were made
to reason in terms of gross dollars spent. If the spending of
money by individual candidates was an invitation to corruption,
why -- regulate the amounts spent!
approach to reducing campaign spending ran into two problems,
one of them constitutional. The Supreme Court ruled that federal
election expense limits could be set, inasmuch as the government
had a legitimate interest in protecting an appearance of integrity
in electoral proceedings. But to limit what an individual could
spend in promoting himself as a candidate, or in promoting his
cause, would be an incursion on First Amendment rights and, as
During the disputes
of that period, two voices sounded weightily. Milton Friedman
argued mostly on the question of personal rights. If individuals
wished to make contributions to political candidates reflecting
intense enthusiasm for them or for their causes, what to do? Answer:
Follow the first rule of a libertarian society, and let them do
what they want to do.
The columnist George
Will argued with devastating effect that there was no purpose
in electoral reform that sought to reduce moneys spent for the
simple reason that contributors will find ways to contribute,
and politicians will find ways to spend. All that can be done,
argued Mr. Will, is to insist that money traffic be disclosed,
so that the broader constituency can decide for itself whether
the courtship of a candidate or a cause has become smelly.
Many pundits bowed
before the pressure of these arguments. But what has now happened
in the area of government spending is on the order of a structural
breakdown, a flight from responsibility that doesn't get punished
because everyone apparently is guilty. The executive has not been
punished for failing to exercise a veto against inordinate spending.
And legislators get de facto immunity on the grounds that problems
are systemic, not individual.
Consider the device
by which pork is engineered. The so-called "earmark,"
appended to a huge bill providing, say, for the common defense,
brings on arrested motion if the earmarker's request for money
for the famous bridge from nowhere to nowhere is not authorized.
One practical suggestion
has been made, but would of course require filibuster-proof action.
Namely, that all the earmarks attached to a particular bill may
not constitute more than 1 percent of the money being authorized
by that bill.
A second suggestion
is made by former Speaker Newt Gingrich. It is that incumbents
be prohibited from fund-raising in Washington, D.C. This would
greatly reduce the influence of lobbyists on congressional action.
And so on. I remember
as a student in Mexico City hearing the derisory suggestion on
how to limit graft in the executive. President Manuel Avila Camacho
stressed his personal incorruptibility in the matter of profiteering
from the sale of beef -- he pointed out that he owned no cattle.
Ah. But his brother Maximino, petitioned by starving American
meat buyers for 100,000 head of cattle, famously replied, "What
color?" A so-called reformer in the national assembly amused
his colleagues by suggesting an amendment to the Mexican constitution
forbidding a president to have a brother.
Well, we cannot change
human nature. Accordingly, we can assume that corruption will
continue, but the graver problem is the apparent indifference
to corruption. Perhaps a nation that seems to have been persuaded
by its legislature that medical care can be free suffers from
permanently dulled senses, and has to learn from some dire future
jolt that self-government cannot hope to work without effective
2005 Universal Press Syndicate