And while it is proper to disdain the likes of Pruitt and Menendez, Americans should also recognize that the larger danger is that interest groups will always have a keen interest in influencing politicians of weak morals, so long as the government is involved in their industries.
In theory, a night-watchman state could solve this problem; a government that hardly does anything is not worth corrupting. But few want such a lean state. Instead, Americans need to do a better job of disentangling the private interests and public service of government officials; the place where our government is most vulnerable to corruption is the wallet of the politician.
There’s no shortage of common-sense proposals to do that. Start by restricting the “revolving door” between the government and the private sector—politicians expect to cash in on their time in government, and scholarly research has shown that they bend public policies to the interests of their prospective employers. Create similar standards for high-level congressional staffers, on committees such as Senate Finance and House Energy and Commerce. We also need to pay such staffers a salary that is commensurate with what their skills and knowledge could acquire in the private sector, so that they are not looking for opportunities to cash in.
While we are at it, we should massively expand the number of congressional staffers. Amazingly, the legislative branch has about as many employees as the Department of Agriculture, and many congressional staffers are in local offices dealing with constituent concerns. This means that members of Congress often go to interest groups to acquire information on policy implications. If you have ever wondered why special interests actually write sections of the law, that is your answer. Congress does not have the policy expertise to do it itself.
But we should think bigger, too. Campaign finance looms large, and neither the right nor the left has dealt with it in a realistic way. The right thinks the First Amendment demands a laissez-faire approach to finance, and in so doing overlooks the corrupting influence of money in politics. The left is too obsessed with regulating money, and thus fails to appreciate that politics is expensive, and that campaign funds have to come from somewhere. After more than a century of campaign-finance regulations, it still mostly comes from the same place, at least for the average member of Congress: wealthy interests with a direct stake in policy outcomes. What we really need is an alternative source of campaign funds: The government should step in as a financier of politics, with a matching program that incentivizes members of Congress to fundraise in small-dollar amounts from constituents back in their districts.
Procedural reforms like these should ease the problems of corruption. But the big lesson from the Hamilton–Madison dispute is that political corruption is an inevitable byproduct of a government that handles the big tasks we expect in the modern world. Ultimately, it is voters themselves who serve as the backstop against the republic turning into an oligarchy. When, despite such reforms, some politicians persist in privileging the interests of the wealthy and the powerful, we the people need to just vote the bums out.