The latest round of arrests and indictments for public corruption in New York, including a Democrat State Senator, Democrat Assemblyman, Republican City Councilman and two GOP party officials has once again spurred calls for the reform of our political process. Without a doubt, political reform is needed. Over the last dozen years, more than 30 elected members of the New York State Legislature, New York City officials, staffers and party leaders have been arrested, indicted or convicted of corruption. Though it may get the gold medal, New York is certainly not alone.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone tell me that “getting the money out of politics would end political corruption,” I’d be able to retire. The fact of the matter is that for all the talk about campaign finance reform there is little attention paid to the root causes of the kind of scandal that all too often makes headlines in places like New York.
Corruption among public officials – particularly elected officials – is the direct result of the existence of a seemingly protected, permanent class of career politicians who are sucked into a culture of perpetual campaigning. The key to dealing with the pay-to-play atmosphere and reengaging the public is not a vain attempt at pulling all money out of politics and replacing it with tax dollars. It’s doing something about our political culture.
The corruption problem in New York and other places stems from the fact that, in so many ways, people are disconnected from the political process. Party bosses orchestrate nominations. Self-funding candidates dominate the airwaves. Voters allow themselves to be taken for granted. Of course, there are huge segments of the population that don’t vote because they don’t take their civic responsibility seriously or believe the system is hopelessly crooked.
Governor Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver – himself no stranger to scandal – not willing to pass up an opportunity to play press release politics, have suggested a number of potential political reforms to clean up the mess in New York. Both Cuomo and Silver are making it look like they are trying to do something about this chronic problem, but so far have not dared touch the third rail of political reform – term limits and the perpetual campaign.
In New York, for instance, members of the State Senate and Assembly serve only two-year terms. That means legislators are constantly running for office. The expense of running in a state like New York necessitates officials spending more time raising money than perhaps any other activity associated with their job. Special interests love the scenario. Political consultants and fundraisers make a mint. The constituent, on the other hand, ends up never having a real advocate.
Candidates get more desperate for cash because not only are they running every two years, but the entire legislature is up for reelection at the same time. This places a heavy burden on campaigns and party committees who are competing for donor dollars.
New York can help change its political culture by moving toward staggered four year terms for members of its legislature. Half the State Senate and Assembly should be up one year and the other half the next. With four-year terms, the next – and perhaps more important step in reform can take place.
Term limits should be set at three terms or twelve years of service in a particular legislative chamber. State-wide elected officials should also be term-limited. If you can’t accomplish your goals for your constituency in twelve years, it’s time to let someone else take a shot.
These two steps will produce more choices and better leadership for voters. New Yorkers and for that matter Americans need more elected officials who have run a business or taught in a classroom. Ensuring new voices, new ideas and new blood are injected into the process is critical for the goal of “draining the swamp” to have any hope of being achieved.
Consider that in 2010, which was widely considered a “wave” election cycle, more than 85% of incumbents nationwide still won reelection. Incumbency is a powerful advantage and the lack of turnover creates a system subject to atrophy that stifles innovation.
Our Founding Fathers, President Lincoln and other great public servants believed strongly that politics wasn’t a profession. They believed it was a temporary opportunity to work for the common good. The notion that someone would spend twenty or thirty years ensconced in some elected role was anathema. The idea that someone should lead who’d practically never had a profession, held a job, and worked outside of government ran counter to the very notion of the democratic process.
To the point of having and holding a job, in addition to term limits, legislative sessions in states like New York should also be shortened to allow Members to maintain outside business interests with aggressive sunlight provisions in the law to prevent conflicts of interests. New York is one of only 11 states that have no constitutional or statutory limit on the number of days the state legislature can be in session. The less time legislators are in Albany, Washington or any state capitol for that matter, the less damage they can do. We need our elected officials spending more time in their districts and less time on the road or entrenched in the political lifestyle of the capitol.
Most state legislators and elected officials are decent, hard-working people. Many of them work seven days a week – even if their office is classified as a part-time job. Many spend so much time focused on their public role, raising money and cutting deals to get reelected they have little time to earn outside income at the level they would if they been in the private sector full time. That leads to bad choices and desperate behavior.
The concept of the citizen-servant is still sound and should continue to be promoted and celebrated. Without term limits and reforms that curtail our perpetual campaign culture, however, the essence of public service will continue to be lost to an insulated political class that will grow in power. As that happens, more voters will disengage and qualified, honorable people who aspire to elected office will choose to pass up the opportunity to serve in public office.
It’s time to get serious about ending political corruption. It’s time to take steps to open up our political process.