Tuesday, March 01, 2011Something that's been bothering me lately is the career trajectories of former legislators. Now I'm not talking about political staffers who serve for a few years and then go work for the companies that lobbied them. That's a substantial problem, but at the end of the day elected officials are responsible for their own actions. No, what I'm more interested in is the phenomena where members of Congress retire or leave office and then begin working as lobbyists or on corporate boards. Our political system is predicated on the notion that officeholders wish more than anything else to remain officeholders. The representative system simply presumes that by threatening to withhold their vote citizens can hold elected officials accountable.
My question is whether this presumption reflects reality. I haven't done the empirical research, but it appears that a lot of elected officials are receiving large financial rewards for their behavior while in the legislature. There's a two-year ban on lobbying after you leave office, but there's nothing to stop a corporation (it's always a corporation) from paying an ex-congressman at $1000000 a year salary for life as a reward for "good behavior" while serving in office. Here's an example: let's say a member of Congress gets an amendment through worth a billion dollars a year over ten years to a given company, for a total of 10 billion in gains for the company. The member of congress is defeated or retires and is paid that $1 million a year salary for the next thirty years, for a total of $30 million. A simple cost-benefit ratio suggests that the company in question will have enjoyed a 333 to 1 return on their investment. Not too shabby.
There's a lot wrong with this back-of-the-envelope calculation. A single member of congress isn't usually well placed enough, for example. But my worry is whether there are enough members of congress who in the back of their minds say to themselves "I'll vote the way the financial industry wants me to, even if I'm not sure it's the right thing to do, because they'll help me out in the election. And even if I lose, they'll take care of me later."
My question is this: what in the world could be done to stop something like this from happening? Under the new campaign finance regime, what's to stop corporations from sponsoring candidates for office with the understanding that the candidate will "play ball" while in office and be richly rewarded should they lose? What laws are there on the books to prosecute an elected official, when we're not really talking about an explicit quid pro quo?
The answer is.....nothing. Nothing at all.