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The Political Environment Needs a Cleanup : It’s the System That Has Become Polluted--Not Just a Few Erring Individuals

<i> Walter Zelman is the executive director of California Common Cause</i>

Stories about political corruption--like the ones now detailing the FBI’s “sting” operation in Sacramento--usually focus on blatant, “smoking-gun” actions taken by specific individuals.

But the kinds of corruption with which we should be most concerned usually take subtler, more pervasive and more systemic forms. They involve the constant bending of ethical boundaries by large numbers rather than the breaking of those boundaries by small numbers.

We would be wise, then, to view corruption as an environmental rather than as a psychological disorder. A reasonably strong democracy can usually survive the corrupt, even the blatantly corrupt, acts of a few individuals. What it cannot long survive are political environments and systems that almost force larger numbers of reasonably honorable individuals to engage in dishonorable political activities.

Such a political environment exists in California today. At its core is a system of financing political campaigns that maintains, as its most singular feature, the essential ingredient of systemic political corruption--the excessive dependence of public officials on private resources.

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Campaign costs, whether driven by real or only by perceived needs, have continued to soar. Almost all candidates, incumbents included, feel pressed--to meet their own needs or, if they are politically secure, the needs of party colleagues--to accumulate as large a campaign fund as possible. They do so primarily by relying on the most readily, and often the only, available source of needed funds--private special-interest groups that make a practice of seeking to influence public policy.

Thus the rules of the game create and maintain a dangerous attraction between the needs of public officials and the assets and needs of private interests. When that attraction becomes too powerful, largely because of higher levels of need or lower levels of integrity, the necessary separation between private money and public policy becomes alarmingly small or disappears altogether.

It rarely does so in the form of a public official taking a specific contribution in exchange for a specific act. Rather, it does so in the form of many public officials bending, where they can, the line between private and public interest. The occasional and total break in ethical or legal rules may be what catches the eye of the public, but the bending of those rules is going on all the time and is the much more serious problem.

The recognition of such systemic pressures to bend the rules does not excuse wrongdoing. Even when such activities take place only at the ethical margins--in the acceptance of a weakening amendment or in the tacit tolerance of an inappropriate tax credit--the public must not condone the violation of a public official’s public trust.

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But if we are to effectively address the real problems of political corruption, we must first acknowledge its systemic roots and the overriding need--regardless of what we do with the individual players--to change the rules of the game.

Last June the voters seemed prepared to do just that. In passing two campaign-reform initiatives they delivered a strong pro-reform verdict. Unfortunately, and probably without realizing the effect of doing so, more voters supported the weaker of the two measures. That measure imposes only modest limits on the size of contributions that may be given to a candidate. It does not impose any restrictions on campaign spending. In addition, it bans the use of any--even modest amounts--of taxpayer or public financing of political campaigns. As a result, the new law fails to address the most pressing systemic problems. It does not reduce the perceived need of candidates for funds, and it does not reduce either the perceived need of candidates for funds or the reliance of those candidates on special-interest group contributions.

The campaign-reform task remains, at best, incomplete. The need for seemingly unlimited amounts of campaign funds remains. A major systemic root of political wrongdoing is still very much intact.

Beyond the question of campaign financing there are other systemic problems that we would be wise to address. We allow lobbying groups to pay sizable speaking fees, or honorariums, to public officials. We allow and, because state legislative salaries are inadequate, may actually encourage elected officials to maintain other sources of income--law practices, insurance businesses and so forth--that can produce conflicts of interest between the needs of private clients and the needs of the general public.

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Again, the awareness of systemic problems should not lead to a tolerance of unethical or illegal behavior. But when we ignore the systemic origins of political wrongdoing we are inviting political trouble. Corruption remains a primarily environmental disorder.


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