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Is Our Government Hopelessly Corrupted? Do You Even Have To Wonder?



And I'm not even talking about the crippling Trump effect. Sure, Trump made it much, much worse but one way that the two parties are nearly identical goes beyond politics: corruption. There are incorruptible politicians, but how many of those do you find in the U.S. Congress? Incorruptible politicians aren't born, they're made. When history students think an incorruptible politician, Cato comes to mind-- actually both of them, grandson and grandfather. As Roman senators, they were known as men of unimpeachable integrity and immune to offers of bribes. Each detested the atmosphere of corruption that permeated the Roman Republic.


Cato the Elder

I asked a longtime member of Congress about her colleagues and she told me that she assumes that most of them are incorruptible but admitted she isn't certain and definitely did not want to discuss it on the record.


I also spoke to one of the top Democrats in the House, someone more on the conservative end of the party, but a trustworthy big-issues thinker, who told me that he believes "the key is having a good definition of corruption. Some people think meeting with oil companies is corrupt. Some people think having your daughter working on your campaign is corrupt. Some people think refusing to deal with the Medicare unfounded liability is corrupt... Bottom line is that my colleagues are no more or less corrupt than any other group of people. There are probably 5-10% who are willing to break the law for money or something. Often they get caught. And another 25-35% who are willing to operate in the Grey zone by misreporting mileage or using campaign funds for a fancy dinner or something. Kind of interesting how the Republicans always seem to get snared with insider trading of stock (Collins, Loeffler, Perdue, etc), whereas Dems seem to take cash and watches and stuff (Jefferson, Blago)."

One of the most influential House staffers seems to think otherwise. Just moments ago, he told me that he "thought a little bit about this after your previous post on the topic. Using the current Congress (so not including newly elected Members-- whom I don't' know that well anyway) I could probably make a case for about 15 or so Democrats to be pretty solid human beings and about as incorruptible as possible. Believe it or not I would probably add another 3 or 4 Republicans to that mix. I don't agree with their positions, but I don't think they are corrupt or could be turned away from their principles for political gain. So that would be around 20 of the 438 Members and delegates - so what is that, 4.5% or so?"

When Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Program, who didn't see it as a golden opportunity for graft and corruption? The Florida Democratic Party, for example-- which certainly isn't good for anything else-- went to extraordinary lengths to embezzle over $800,000 from the program. The other worst state party in the country, The Ohio Democratic Party, pulled a similar stunt. Neither the Florida nor the Ohio Democratic Party is built to win elections-- just to facilitate corruption.



Obviously, it isn't just those in government who are supposed to be policing corruption, who are corrupt. Business is often all about corruption. This morning, the Washington Post published a piece about PPP embezzlement. "More than half of the money from the Treasury Department’s coronavirus emergency fund for small businesses went to just 5 percent of the recipients, according to data on more than 5 million loans that was released by the government Tuesday evening in response to a Freedom of Information Act request and lawsuit. According to data on the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), about 600 mostly larger companies, including dozens of national chains, received the maximum amount allowed under the program of $10 million.


The data released Tuesday disclosed for the first time the exact dollar figures received by some of the top recipients, showing that a number of restaurant chains received the maximum $10 million, among them the parent companies of Uno Pizzeria & Grill, Legal Sea Foods, Boston Market and Cava Mezze Grill. Law firms, churches and professional staffing services were also among recipients of $10 million loans.
...Previous disclosures of PPP loan data showed the program was falling fall short of the Trump administration’s claims of its success. A Post analysis of 4.9 million loans initially released by the SBA contained numerous errors, casting doubt on the administration’s claim that the $517 billion in lending had “supported” 51 million jobs.
Many companies were reported to have “retained” far more workers than they employ. Likewise, in some cases, the agency’s jobs claim for entire industries surpassed the total number of workers in those sectors. For more than 875,000 borrowers, the data showed that zero jobs were supported or no information is listed at all, according to the analysis.
There is also increasing evidence that the program was subject to considerable fraud. Investigators at the Justice Department, FBI, IRS and other agencies have joined forces to identify fraudulent borrowers, and in September the government announced it had charged 57 people with trying to steal a total of $175 million. The SBA inspector general’s office has received tens of thousands of fraud tips, and federal officials have launched hundreds of investigations.
Additionally, a “blanket approval” allowed Congress, officials and their families to receive PPP funds without a required conflict of interest review. Several members of Congress, including some who helped shape the program’s rules, benefited from funds, according to news reports and financial records.
...In rolling out the Paycheck Protection Program, the SBA and the Treasury Department stripped away much of the paperwork that is traditionally required for business loans, something that allowed banks to move quickly but also made the program more vulnerable to abuse. The federal government promised that PPP loans could be entirely forgiven, making them far more attractive than what most businesses could find without government help.

There's some pressure on Congress now to pass another pandemic relief bill, although Trump is no longer interested one way or the other. Many in Congress would just as soon run out the clock and go on another month-long paid vacation. Senate Republicans haven interest in passing anything to help ordinary American families but they are willing to compromise if they can get a bill that includes immunity for businesses that are responsible for the deaths of employees during the pandemic. Good ole conservatives... always looking out for their donors. The bipartisan centrist "compromise" includes $160 billion for local aid, $180 for unemployment insurance and another $288 for "small-business" PPP. Unemployment benefits would ensure $300 a week for 18 weeks, retroactive to Dec. 1, half what it was from the CARES Act in late March. There's also billions in aid to airlines. As usual, McConnell has been a roadblock to anything moving forward.

I want to move sideways to a post by James Kwak, at BaselineScenario.com, Leverage. "One of Congress’s top priorities this week and next," he wrote, "is to pass some kind of funding bill that will keep the federal government operating past December 11. There are basically two ways this could happen. Option A is that Congress could pass a continuing resolution that maintains funding at current levels until, say, the end of January-- that is, when we’ll have a new Congress and a new administration. Option B is to pass an omnibus fiscal year 2021 spending bill that determines discretionary spending levels through September of next year when the federal government’s fiscal year ends. The Democratic leadership apparently is pushing for Option B because-- well, probably because they think it’s the responsible thing to do and will make them look good with that tiny but all-important segment of voters who know the difference between a continuing resolution and a proper appropriations bill. But, in doing so, they could be throwing away one of the few levers that Democrats will have to actually accomplish anything during the next congressional term.


The point is that government funding measures are must-pass bills. No one likes a government shutdown, and historically Democrats have been able to pin most of the blame for them on Republicans, dating back to 1995, when Bill Clinton successfully portrayed Newt Gingrich as a zealot who was out to slash Medicare (which he was). If Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock come through in Georgia on January 5, Democrats will have majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 2010-- but such razor-thin minorities that Joe Manchin is already rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of becoming the most important person on Capitol Hill.
In this context, an omnibus budget reconciliation bill could represent one of the Biden administration’s few real chances to pass anything through Congress. Bills passed through reconciliation are not subject to the Senate filibuster (which isn’t going away, regardless of what you think about it), which means they only need a bare majority. The need to avert a government shutdown creates the pressure to bring people (the so-called moderates) to the table to come to a deal. Now, Joe Manchin isn’t suddenly going to become a sponsor of the Green New Deal because the Democrats have a majority in the Senate-- he’s going to extract everything he can in exchange for his vote. But there is still a lot that Democrats could accomplish in an omnibus spending bill: money for the DOJ Civil Rights Division, money for the EPA, money for election protection, money for low-income housing, and so on. This is an opportunity to dictate discretionary spending priorities a full eight months earlier than we would otherwise be able to do. And would you rather negotiate with Manchin or with Mitch McConnell?
And yet the Democratic leadership in Congress seems inclined to give up the potential chance to write their own appropriations bill in January in exchange for a bill that they have to negotiate with McConnell and... Donald J. Trump. (The vague new COVID-19 stimulus bill that people are talking about is currently being positioned as a separate piece of legislation-- which makes sense because it’s toxic to most Republicans.) It’s almost as if they don’t want the opportunity to govern. Sure, Ossoff and Warnock could lose in January, but we would still be in a stronger position than we are now, with Biden in the White House.
During the next two years, we are going to have precious few chances to pass any kind of meaningful legislation. Why are we throwing one of them away?

UPDATE:


Another member got back to me this afternoon and said he thinks about 20 of his colleagues are incorruptible. "Campaign finance corrupts almost everyone," he explained. "If not for that, you’d still have a ton of Members who would be interested in selling their souls, but there wouldn’t be a compulsion to do so."