After my earlier piece was posted, I appeared on NPR's Talk of the Nation with two other bloggers, Jeralyn Merritt of TalkLeft and Matt Lewis, who blogs at Human Events. There was surprising agreement among the three of us about what the scandal means. You can listen to the audio online here.
One excellent point that Matt Lewis made (it's just before the end): This scandal is a black mark for John McCain and the McCain-Feingold campaign finance "reform" law. That was supposed to clean up politics, but it doesn't seem to have worked. More "reform" laws probably won't help either, unless they change the structure and incentives involved.
Meanwhile, reader Jonathan Krit e-mails:
I don't think your "if you want cleaner government, you need smaller government" theory passes historical muster. Were things less corrupt in the days of Calvin Coolidge? Compared to corruption scandals in the past, this is small potatoes (and I'm a Bush-intensely-disliking Dem!). Everyone knew the interests JA represented, who was getting money, and how they voted. Most of the votes he influenced were relatively small potatoes. Compared to the Iraq War/Halliburton/military-industrial conspiracy tales, Indian gaming is barely a blip.
I think a better argument can be made that instead of smaller government we need fewer (and better defined) laws. For example, simplify taxes and you'll get less tax fraud (and/or easier enforcement).
Lobbyist Jack Abramoff has pled guilty and is promising to sing like a canary in the latest Congressional scandal. Republicans are taking comfort in the fact that some important Democrats are involved, too, and politicians from both parties are scrambling to return or donate Abramoff contributions, but it's still basically a Republican scandal. And there's a lesson in that.
When the Republicans took Congress in 1994, they did so in no small part because people were disgusted with the entrenched corruption of the Democratic establishment. But now the Republicans are looking just as corrupt. Democrats hope they'll manage to produce a reverse-1994 and take back Congress on the strength of popular revulsion, but that's somewhat chancy: It's not enough to convince voters that the Republicans are crooks -- the Republicans are doing that themselves -- Democrats also have to convince voters that they'll do better.
That'll be hard, because the real source of corruption isn't that one party is more venal than the other. They're all politicians, after all. The real source of corruption is government power. When the government can make or break businesses, businesses will try to influence it. If you want cleaner government, you need to limit what, and how, government affects people's lives.
Both parties denounce corruption when they're out, and scramble to the trough when they're in. And I confidently predict that, in accordance with the analysis presented here, Congress will enact new "ethics" rules in the wake of this scandal, but that those rules won't actually accomplish much.
If you want honest government, you need to support smaller government (that's the point of Joel Miller's book, Size Matters, which I mentioned yesterday), and more fidelity to those features in the Constitution that are anti-corruption in nature, but which have been largely ignored in recent decades. Because if you're relying on the integrity and self-restraint of politicians, well...
Big governmentWhen Bush was elected in 2000, my hopes for him were modest (I actually voted Libertarian in 2000), but I did have some hope that he would reduce the size and intrusiveness of the federal government, or at least slow the rate of growth. Those hopes, however modest, were disappointed.
In fact, government keeps growing. In his new book, Size Matters: How Big Government Puts the Squeeze on America's Families, Finances, and Freedom, Joel Miller offers numerous illustrations of the damage that's done.
Of course, to be fair to Bush, the problem isn't just a federal one: Many of the most intrusive government regulations are at the state and local level, and those governments are growing, too, without even the excuse of a war on terror.
Miller does a good job of spelling out the problem -- as I've said before, the book is a virtual manifesto for the PorkBusters movement -- but his book is a bit short on solutions. At the federal level, I think we need to see structural change: A balanced budget amendment, term limits, or perhaps something like the " Truth in Legislation" Amendment that would limit federal bills to a single subject the way that some state constitutions do.
I think that this will be a campaign issue in 2008, and maybe even in 2006. Trouble is, neither party really wants to stop the growth of government except when it's out of power.
© 2013 MSNBC Interactive