In Federalist 51, James Madison wrote: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
The danger that legislators will be corrupt is inherent in the very nature of government.
Politicians, as Madison pointed out in Federalist 10, represent interests and simultaneously judge the fairness of the bills written to serve those interests. The only hope we have to minimize corruption is to create a system where power is divided and interests multiplied.
As government has grown, organizations both inside and outside government have worked to curb the temptation for personal enrichment.
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In Washington state, the responsibility to enforce ethics in public life falls to the Executive Ethics Board.
Nonetheless, we continue to see corruption scandals every year, and confidence in government continues to decrease. According to the Pew Research Center: “Only 18 percent of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time.”
When Eisenhower was president, public trust was at 78 percent. Donald Trump was elected, in part, because he promised to “drain the swamp.”
Jack Abramoff, the mind behind one of the biggest corruption scandals in generations, argues that the problem isn’t that we elect greedy or immoral officials, but that the current system punishes those who do not engage in some level of corruption.
Corruption is subtle and occurs gradually and invisibly. Rules put in place to discourage bribes and to maximize government efficiency have had the perverse effect of encouraging those in public service to seek or accept ever-larger favors from lobbyists and donors. Eventually, those favors are called in.
Partisanship only exacerbates the problems. When policy disagreements are existential, failure to win becomes unthinkable. Breaking the rules that have historically maintained procedural fairness is now justified.
On Thurday, the Columbia Basin Badger Club has invited two speakers with extensive experience in state government to help us understand what corruption is, how state governments attempt to police it, and how the current level of distrust between the parties makes it easier to cross ethical boundaries.
Sam Rhodes is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at Washington State University. He has worked for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and the Maine State Legislature. Jason Mercier is the director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center.
Miriam Kerzner is an adjunct instructor for Columbia Basin College with a masters in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh. She has taught various classes in sociology and political science during her nine years at the college.
If you go:
When: 11:30 a.m. Thursday, October 18.
Where: Shilo Inn, 50 Comstock St., Richland.
Cost: Advance registration is $20 for members and $25 for nonmembers. Day of event is $30. Lunch is included with the forum.
Register: Go to columbiabasinbadgers.com or call 628-6011