How to Make Congress More Corrupt

As part of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Texas Governor Rick Perry wants to “Uproot and Overhaul” Washington, D.C. with specific reforms to each branch of government. The proposals include a “fundamental reform of the judiciary” through judicial term limits, a “fundamental reform of the executive branch” through the elimination of three federal agencies (the Departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy), and a “fundamental reform of the legislative branch.” Here is Politico’s Mike Allen with details on the latter:

Fundamental Reform of the Legislative Branch: Citizen Congress, Accountability and Transparency … Work to establish a part-time, Citizen Congress … Cut congressional pay in half and repeal the rules that prevent members of Congress from holding real jobs in their home states and communities.

Perry isn’t wrong to push for judicial term limits—lifetime appointments incentivize obstruction and ideological packing—and there is a plausible argument for dismantling some federal agencies (the USDA, for example). Where Perry goes off the rails is with his call for a “Citizen Congress.” Combined with sharp congressional pay cuts (and presumably, an elimination of most congressional staff), a part-time, non-professional Congress would be ripe for corruption and incompetence. It’s not hard to see why. Legislating is hard work, and the value of a professional legislature is that it allows lawmakers to develop the skills and expertise necessary to write good laws. Decent pay factors into this—when lawmakers aren’t worried about paying the bills, they are less likely to respond to bribery, pay-for-play, and other forms of corruption.

Here’s what you would get by adopting Perry’s “reforms.” Already, congresspeople are buffeted with concerns from constituents and interest groups on a variety of policies, to say nothing of the pressure of fundraising and re-election. Absent the time to educate themselves or the staff necessary to collect information, something has to give, and more often than not, that something is independence. When lawmakers are pressed for time, resources, and cash, they’re far more likely to rely on lobbyists for information, and even written legislation. After all, of the people in or around government, lobbyists (and assorted advocates) have the most time and resources for changing the direction of policy. Professionalized legislatures aren’t perfect, but they stand as something of a bulwark to the undue influence of interest groups. Take that away, and you’ve turned Congress into an institution more porous than it already is.

This isn’t a hypothetical. Back in 2002, Karen Olsson described the culture of corruption among our largely unprofessionalized state legislatures for Mother Jones:

With more than 2,400 state lawmakers as members – roughly one third of the nation’s total – ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] is a year-round clearinghouse for business-friendly legislation. Its nine task forces, each composed of legislators and representatives from private industry, sit down together to draft model bills on issues ranging from agriculture to school vouchers, which are then introduced in state legislatures across the country.

It’s also worth noting that Texas has one of the most corrupt state legislatures in the country. Whether he realizes it or not, this is the vision Rick Perry has outlined for the United States Congress.