(HOST) Commentator Dick Mallary has been listening to the news from Washington DC lately and thinking a lot about corruption in high places.
(MALLARY) The United States is enduring the revelations of yet another cycle of corrupt behavior in Washington.
We have recently seen a conviction for bribery, guilty pleas from lobbyists and indictments made or rumored of further charges of improper behavior and illegal influence. The majority leader in the House of Representatives has been brought down and both chambers of Congress are anxiously tinkering with ethics rules and procedures and setting up new or enhanced watchdogs to solve the problem or, at least, calm the public storm.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new or unusual. The players are different and the details are different, but the continuing reality is that some people or groups have acquired and exert undue and improper influence on government.
Yet, in my experience in Congress, although it was over thirty years ago, most of the five hundred thirty-five members of the House and Senate are good and decent people whose primary motivation is to do the right thing for the country and their constituency. It is the rare exceptional member who explicitly accepts a monetary or other personal benefit in direct exchange for a vote or an action taken on the petitioner’s behalf. For such criminal behavior, investigation, prosecution and punishment are the proper tools.
The lower profile problem is that of access. The members of Congress are busy people with crowded schedules and multiple demands upon their time. There are not enough hours in the days to meet with every petitioner, to read every letter and to accept every phone call. In scheduling their time, their natural inclination is to find time and attention for the petitioners who supported their candidacy and who provided funds and support for their election. The only way to address this unfairness is electoral reform and full disclosure, and, even then, I doubt success.
In preparing to address a recent democracy award ceremony to Vermont citizens who have performed exemplary public service, I pondered why the ethical standard in Vermont seems to be so much higher than what we read about in Washington. My conclusion was that most public servants in Vermont serve the public interest out of a sense of public duty and their major reward is not financial or personal aggrandizement, but is the psychic reward of having done their duty. Unlike the climate in Washington, D.C. or in many other states, public servants here in Vermont do not receive the fawning attention of multiple staffers, the obsequious attention of hordes of lobbyists and petitioners, or the glamour of being recognized as an important personage.
The corruption that we see in Washington is even more the corruption of power than it is the corruption of money. And, since power corrupts and greater power comes with longer tenure, I believe that the only effective way to address this insidious form of corruption is to establish reasonable limits on the terms of elected office holders. Many states have already done so. It is time for Vermont and the United States to follow their example.
Dick Mallary has served extensively in state government and is a former US congressman from Vermont.