The truth, however, is that Congress is probably less corrupt than at any point in our history. Real old-fashioned corruption, of the briefcase-full-of-cash kind, is extremely rare (though it still happens, as with William Jefferson, he of the $90,000 stuffed in the freezer). That isn’t to say that malfeasance doesn’t still occur, not to mention the many things that ought to be illegal but aren’t, like taking campaign contributions from industries your committee regulates. But on the whole, today’s member of Congress is far less likely to be corrupt than her counterpart of 100 years ago.
It’s nice to get a reminder now and then that the real brazen stuff is more likely to occur at the state and local level, where regulations tend to be more lax and the glare of the spotlight is far dimmer [Emphasis mine].
Not too long ago, the Daily Beast had a gallery of the most corrupt states in the union, which is worth checking out. In the last ten years, my home state of Virginia, which ranks number 2 on the list of most corrupt states, has seen 14 convictions for public corruption, 9 convictions for racketeering and extortion, 18 convictions for forgery and counterfeiting, 5 convictions for embezzlement, and a nice helping of fraud. Indeed, there seems to be a fair amount of low (or high) level corruption in state capitals around the country, which really isn’t that much of a shock.
Last year, the American Journalism Review reported that “only 355 full-time newspaper reporters at the nation’s state capitols, a 32 percent decrease from just six years ago.” What’s more, the vast majority of statehouses “have fewer full-time reporters than they did six years ago.” Simply put, it’s stupidly easy to be a corrupt local politician when media scrutiny is minimal or nonexistent.
As an aside, this is why I’m baffled by the recent right-wing crusade against the 17th amendment. Conservatives seem to think that they could achieve more limited government by re-tethering senators to their states, but in reality, repealing the 17th amendment makes corruption far more likely. By virtue of the fairly low barriers to entry — state elections are small scale, relatively inexpensive, and lack scrutiny — it is fairly easy to influence a state legislator with cash or favors. You can easily imagine a world where entrenched interests use the indirect election of senators to buy-off representatives in Washington (contrary to popular belief, Congress isn’t nearly as corrupt as we think).