On Wednesday, Oregon governor John Kitzhaber will resign his office in the midst of a corruption scandal. A governor stepping down in disgrace is a pretty rare event in our politics — although maybe it should be more common.
The controversy has to do with his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes. She is alleged to have used her public office to push clean energy and economic development policies, while also being paid by a private firm to promote the very same policies. The governor supposedly facilitated this by giving her access to senior state officials. And there are questions about whether Hayes properly reported to the taxman some of the hundreds of thousands dollars she collected as a consultant over the years.
What a mess. But just how unique is this story? Unfortunately, as I detail in my new book, A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption, this kind of conflict of interest is sadly typical. Indeed, conflicts of interest are now an integral part of how politics gets done — not just in state governments but also Washington, D.C.
What makes this story special is not the scam Kitzhaber and his fiancee were apparently involved in, but how grubby and explicit it was.
Think of it this way. Suppose you’re a member of Congress who did what Kitzhaber allegedly did: use your fiancee to collect cash for you to push some public policy. If you got caught, you would be disgraced — just like Kitzhaber. So why be so over-the-top about it? Better to be a little more subtle.
Suppose instead you helped that interest group implement its policy, then it plied you with tens of thousands in campaign contributions, which you used to pay your wife and son the salaries they collect for working on your campaign. It then gives a donation to the charity that your sister runs. Then, when you leave office, the same group hires you as its lobbyist, paying you a nice, seven-figure salary. In this scenario, not only would you not go to jail, but other members of Congress would probably ask you to direct some of that campaign cash to them!
When you get right down to it, what is the real difference between Kitzhaber and our hypothetical congressman? Hardly anything at all! In both cases, officials sacrificed the public interest for their own well-being. But one ends in scandal, while the other — well, that’s just the way things are done in politics. And make no mistake: such technically legal corruption has cost us dearly. Fannie Mae elevated this style of palm-greasing to an art form, even as it was loading up on the subprime mortgages that brought down the economy in 2008.
Or compare the Kitzhaber scandal to Solyndra. The governor’s career is ruined, yet Obama was reelected easily. What is the difference, really? In both cases, government supported green energy programs based on political connections. The only distinction is that one was indirect and difficult to pin down, while the other was obvious and over-the-top. That is hardly comforting for those of us who want a government that behaves fairly and impartially.
So, the sad truth is that the Kitzhaber fiasco is really just the tip of the iceberg. You don’t have to scratch the surface very hard to find the intricate nexus of double-dealings that constitute modern politics. Everywhere you look, there is a conflict of interest. The difference between whether they are legal or illegal usually comes down to how obvious they are.
This kind of corruption is basically inevitable in our government. It is simply too powerful for its own good. Politicians today have such vast, incomprehensible authority over every trivial detail of our lives, is it any wonder that hordes of special interests ply them with campaign cash, favors, and cushy post-government work? With how omnipotent government is today, interest groups would be fools to leave politicians alone.
The Framers of our Constitution understood this much better than we do today. Nowadays, we want Uncle Sam to solve every last problem in our lives. But the Framers knew — from bitter experience under the heel of George III — that an omnipotent sovereign can play favorites. That is why they limited the scope of our government’s authority. The grave mistake that succeeding generations have made is giving government more and more power.
As Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So, is it any wonder that a government as powerful as ours is so crooked?
When the government has so much power to create winners and losers, it is inevitable that special interests will work politicians over as hard as they can. And all too often, they will succeed. If we want to stop it, we have to shrink the size and scope of government for good.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for the Weekly Standard. His new book, A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption, is now available.