Teachout talks money, politics

Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham law professor who authored a well-received book on the subject of money in politics, and who gave Andrew Cuomo a run for his money in the New York State 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary, spoke at length about political corruption at the New America Foundation in Washington D.C. Thursday.

The subject of money in politics, sometimes referred to as “big money," has become a key talking point for American Catholics this year. Both the Franciscan Action Network and NETWORK, a Washington, D.C.-based social justice lobby, have made the issue a key focus in 2014. 

Central to the argument against money in politics is the struggle to reorient American politics to the vision of the common good, and to negate the threat that money poses to that vision. 

“I think we have two crises of corruption in America,” Teachout said during her talk at the New America Foundation. “One is the crisis of what is happening in our government, and the other is a crisis of definition, of what corruption means.” 

“The definition of the word corruption is at the center of some of the most vital legal disputes that we’re having right now,” she said. “In Citizens United in January 2010, and then in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission this past spring, the Supreme Court struck down popularly passed laws limiting, in one case, corporate involvement in politics and, in the other case, the degree to which an individual can contribute to campaigns.” 

“It struck them down because it said neither of these laws served an anti-corruption interest.” 

Why? Because corruption was defined, “as quid pro quo, and nothing more.”

By quid pro quo, the Supreme Court didn’t mean “the traditional contract law phrase quid pro quo,” meaning “this for that.” Instead, it stood for a “very new idea,” one that explicitly equates corruption with “criminal law bribery.”

“In other words,” Teachout said, “something is not [corrupt unless it constitutes] an explicit deal that could be punished under criminal law.”

“There are many problems with this definition,” she said. “The first is that it treats corruption lightly, as an external, non-psychological concept that defines a very narrow category of things.” The difference is essentially that of conceiving of corruption as a “small criminal law problem,” like crooks “stealing aluminum pipes,” rather than a “fundamental political problem,” Teachout said.

The second problem, she said, is that it reclassifies what has traditionally been thought of as corruption as “normal political behavior,” and even worse, a “positive part of political life.” 

Teachout called the new understanding of corruption “dangerous to democracy.” This new understanding is not only “bad law,” she said, it also displays “a very bad understanding of history.” 

She said that Americans from former President James Madison onward have argued that corruption means something broader. For most of American history it referred broadly to the concept of using “public office for private ends.” 

Teachout spent much of her time talking about the Constitutional Convention, which took place in Philadelphia in 1787 and resulted in the United States Constitution.  The convention was about many things, Teachout said, but arguably the most important thing it was about “was building a country that could protect against big money.” It was “basically a money in politics convention,” she said.

Much of the convention talk about corruption focused on “questions of human psychology.” Delegates talked about their own equivalent of the “revolving door,” the idea that public servants might focus more on what political work could get them in the private sector, serving “future masters” rather than “current ones” — the people. 

Delegates called this “the problem of placement,” Teachout said. They worried that “people would go into elected office in order to get an appointed office from the king.”

Teachout talked about Benjamin Franklin, who “had received a jeweled snuff box with a portrait of the king of France,” during his diplomatic envoy in the country. There was concern that the gift would “corrupt” Franklin. “Nobody thought that it was a bribe in the criminal law definition,” Teachout said, “but rather that it would affect his sympathies.” Because after you receive a gift, “it changes your orientation towards the gift giver.” 

To deny this common sense understanding of corruption — to limit its definition to that of “criminal law bribery,” as we do in our contemporary cases — is “to deny one of the most extraordinary parts of our own history,” Teachout said. And yet that is exactly what she says our judiciary is doing.

The common sense understanding of corruption hasn’t changed “on the streets,” Teachout said. “I think if you talk to people on the street they’ll still describe corruption in a very similar way.” But the Supreme Court has started to define corruption in “increasingly narrow ways.” 

In a Q&A session following her talk, Teachout brought up the role of political “messaging” on the subject of money in politics and campaign finance reform. She acknowledged the importance of such messaging and said that politicians should talk more about it. Indeed, that they should campaign on it.

But integrity matters more than words, Teachout said. Voters need “true, actual electoral champions,” she said, “and we have so few of them.”

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrotondaro@ncronline.org.]

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