“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
–John J. Kennedy, Inaugural speech, January 20 ,1961
“It’s very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.” –Donald Trump, (Fortune, April 3, 2000)
The political reforms of the Watergate era are over. And it was not Trump alone who killed over the reforms. Obama did his fair share, as well as Democrats and Republicans across Minnesota and the country who have done it over at least a decade if not longer. It is less of a surprise that this has occurred than it is that no one–neither the public nor the media–seems to notice or care.
Watergate political reforms is a shorthand to refer to a collection of laws and policy initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels meant to combat political corruption and open up the political and governing process to more transparency, fairness, and political accountability. These reforms includes the Ethics in Government Act that addressed problems such as conflicts of interest. It also included sunshine, open meeting, and freedom of information laws meant to ensure government decisions and data are open to public inspection.
Additionally, there were a host of campaign finance laws such as the Federal Election Campaign Act, McCain-Feingold, and at the Minnesota level, the 1994 Marty reforms that build on 1970s laws that banned lobbyist gift giving, provided for public funding for campaigns, and otherwise created a scheme for disclosing the solicitation and expending of money for political purposes. Collectively these laws, along with other mandatory and voluntary acts by candidates, such as statements of economic disclosure and release of candidate tax returns, went a long way to opening up the political process to more scrutiny.
Certainly there were problems with many of these reforms, but the biggest criticisms were two. First, they may not have even gone far enough in terms of rooting out the impact that money has on the political process or in terms of extending disclosure and transparency as far as it needed to go. In effect, the laws felt short of the reforms truly needed to be effective, or even if once effective, they failed to keep pace with efforts to do end-runs around them.
Second, many insiders–especially many elected officials, the political parties, and lobbyists simply did not like the reforms. They saw them as costs of doing business, simply distasteful laws that limited or restricted the quiet, comfortable relationships they had developed overtime. They voted for these reforms because they had to, in part because of strong public support for these regulations in light of the Watergate abuses. In many cases these reforms were internalized by elected officials at the time, but with the passage of time, the lessons for why these reforms were adopted has faded.
Yes the Supreme Court has not helped. It has struck down many campaign finance reforms as violations of the First Amendment, equating money with speech. The Court has narrowed the scope of what is considered legitimate forms of corruption regulation, limiting it to only classic forms of quid pro quo bribery in exchange for an official act (money give to buy a vote), while also ignoring the broader ways that money and power create a structural bias in the political system that political scientists repeatedly describe as one that favors the rich.
But even without the Court stepping in , both Republicans and Democrats at all levels of government has demonstrated indifference if not cynicism toward political reform. Obama talked a great game about money in politics but he was the first major presidential candidate to reject public funding when he ran for president. He complained about Citizens United but never took executive actions that he could have that would addressed some aspects of it. Now he has sold out completely, giving $400,000 speeches to Wall Street that follow Hillary Clinton’s $500,000 speeches.
Trump flouts ethics in ways too numerous to count. His conflicts of interest between his government role as president and his private business dealings are too numerous to count. The same extends to his family and many of his billionaire appointments. He has broken a presidential traditional of releasing tax returns, and in general, despite “draining the swamp,” he seems to be expanding its scope.
At the state level, Minnesota has not enacted a significant political reform since 1994. While once a national leader, the Center of Public Integrity assigns Minnesota Ds and Fs for ethics and openness in government. Bipartisan support eroded some parts of the gift ban law, supported increases in the amount of money that can be contributed to political campaigns, and now, as John Marty has pointed out, the legislature is poised to eliminate public funding for campaigns. As the recent story about Dai Thao demonstrates, local officials and their surrogates are embolden in pushing the boundaries of acceptable political behavior.
And why all this happens the public seems indifferent. Democrats dismiss the improprieties against Obama and Republicans the same with Trump. Corruption seems accepted, and few now seem upset by the idea that American government is up for sale.
So who killed political reform and ethics? Maybe it was the elected officials who walked away from reform as inconvenient, except when used as a cudgel to further partisan gains and fuel polarization. Or maybe it was the media, much of which no longer saw promoting good government as an issue. Or maybe it was public who came to accept the status quo as acceptable and which no longer seemed to expect government officials to act with honesty and integrity.