Politics & Policy

The Corruption of Congress

(Jim Young/Reuters)
Members of Congress are willingly surrendering their intended role for the pleasures of a few hits on MSNBC or Fox News.

When people think of corruption in high places, they tend to think of elites feathering their own nests. Bill and Hillary Clinton monetized political power into a personal fortune of hundreds of millions and played the system better than any couple since Napoleon and Josephine. Paul Manafort is alleged to have sold his services to sketchy foreign powers (including a Putin puppet in Ukraine), pocketed multiple millions, evaded American taxes, and, according to evidence presented in his trial, spent up to a million dollars on cashmere suits and ostrich jackets (being rich doesn’t mean having taste).

President Trump is defending his former campaign chairman: “Paul Manafort worked for Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole and many other highly prominent and respected political leaders. He worked for me for a very short time. Why didn’t government tell me that he was under investigation. These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion — a Hoax!” The president might answer a few questions too. Why didn’t he do any background investigation of Manafort? His career representing tainted foreign leaders like Ferdinand Marcos and Jonas Savimbi was public knowledge. Allegations that he received off-the-books payments from overseas interests were also only a click away. In 2016, Manafort flatly denied the allegations: “The simplest answer is the truth: I am a campaign professional. . . . I have never received a single ‘off-the-books cash payment’ as falsely ‘reported’ by the New York Times, nor have I ever done work for the governments of Ukraine or Russia.” That didn’t age well.

Another question for President Trump: Didn’t it strike him as odd that a man of Manafort’s tastes and lifestyle would agree to work for Trump (supposedly a billionaire) for free? Didn’t he pause and reflect, “Hmm, I wonder what he expects to get out of this, and from whom?”

Manafort is the poster child for Washington corruption of the old-fashioned variety — the influence-selling and pocket-lining kind. A remarkable number of Trump’s people have displayed a similar foible. Just in the first 18 months, the secretary of HHS (private jets at taxpayers’ expense), the secretary for Veterans Affairs (vacations for the family at government expense), and the EPA chief (a soundproof booth inter alia), have all been forced out for misusing government funds for their own little luxuries. The secretary of HUD (a $31,000 dining-room set), the Interior secretary (a land-development deal adjacent to his property), the Commerce secretary (shorting stocks on non-public information), and the Treasury secretary (misuse of military aircraft) have all been accused of improper spending as well. Far from drained, the swamp has been stocked by this administration.

But there is another kind of corruption that is more disturbing for the health of our republic — the retreat from governing in favor of posturing.

As Yuval Levin notes in a Commentary essay “Congress is Weak Because Its Members Want it to be Weak,” the 21st century’s profusion of technologies permitting transparency have had some good but many baleful effects. Because virtually everything is televised, politics itself has become less and less about actual governing, with the trades and compromises that requires, and more like performance art.

Because virtually everything is televised, politics itself has become less and less about actual governing.

This tendency among legislators to grandstand and to posture as the brave truth tellers condemning the “dysfunction” of their own institution is actually the true dysfunction. When nearly every member seeks to be a cable- or local-TV star rather than a lawmaker, it’s no wonder that very little actual legislating gets done. As Levin notes, even controlling both chambers and with a Republican president poised to sign anything they send up, the Republican Congress has achieved very little. They passed a tax cut, but concerning the other priorities they campaigned on for years — reforming the health-care system, adjusting the immigration laws, confronting the entitlement crisis — they have done nothing and seem to have no plans. As for the chief job of Congress, developing a budget, well, for the first time in 40 years, neither chamber has even considered a budget resolution. And while Republican leaders demur, the president is again threatening a government shutdown.

That we have a president who struts and howls and shows little interest in the mechanics (to say nothing of the norms) of governing, is well known. But the Congress, designed by the Founders to be the most powerful branch, is willingly surrendering its intended role for the pleasures of a few hits on MSNBC or Fox News. That is an outcome that the founders didn’t anticipate and that will likely outlast our current Tweeter-in-Chief.

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