There has been occasional talk of reform since the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United. But nothing happens. Instead of legislation, we should take it back to plain ethics.
New ethics rules cost us nothing. The Constitution notes that “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a member.”
Ethics rules should be simple: First, no fundraising during the legislative week. You are not in Washington to raise money for campaigns. You are there to work. This work is not walking across the street to some cubicle to grub for campaign cash. This work is not attending fundraising events on K Street. What constituents hired you to do is the normal give and take of crafting legislation, deciding a budget and listening to your constituents’ concerns. Of course, this alone will not eliminate the corporate PACs, dark money or super PACs, but it will make our legislators realize that their time in Washington is our time. Members who break the rule would be subject to censure or expulsion. Of course, some members would try to find loopholes, but a watchful press and citizenry should make it hard to defend transgressions.
The second ethics rule: Senators may not engage in fundraising in the District of Columbia. This is the nation’s capital, not a bazaar. The people of the United States deserve a capital city without the reek of campaign graft.
But let’s not stop there because we have other ethics problems.
When our citizens see members of Congress leave political life to become lobbyists — 446 former members by a recent count on the website Open Secrets — they become cynical about the value of the institution. When they see senators like Kelly Loeffler and Richard Burr are accused of making money off trades from nonpublic information they learned about the pandemic, voters are disgusted. When constituents see Hillary Clinton and Nikki Haley make $200,000 for speaking to elite groups, they ask, “Are these politicians really that wonderful at speaking? Or are the powerful just buying luxury access to them?” When they see Hunter Biden make $50,000 a month as a consultant for a firm he knows nothing about, citizens rightfully ask, “Is this also just about buying access?”
Politicians and their families should not make money off of an office.
On Jan. 3 of every odd-numbered year, members of Congress swear an oath to the Constitution. The current oath has been in use since 1966 and may need some revision.
I propose an additional oath of office after being sworn in. I will swear that when I leave office, I will not be a lobbyist, nor a consultant, nor work for a think tank or a corporate board; nor will I get paid for speaking after serving office. This will be an oath to ensure that my time as a senator is about service. I would encourage every new member to take this oath or develop their own. In time, we can work to revise the oath of office to reflect our citizens’ concerns about politicians profiting from the office they held.
Despite everything, Americans still have a level of affection for our system of government. They want our institutions to function. And though there is a lot of cynicism about politicians and Congress, there is also a deep yearning from people for it to work. People don’t trust our leaders, but deep down they still believe that there might be people of good faith and decency who will strive to do the best for this country, and not prioritize personal ambition or private fortune. We should aim for nothing less.