Why you should care
Because it’s harder to catch corruption than fly balls.
One, two, three strikes aaaand … well, that means an out in America’s favorite game, but in the case of crony capitalism, those strikes amount to pretty much nothing.
You’ve heard the complaints before: ineffectual, corrupt, freewheeling, boondoggling legislators. But don’t get us wrong. We’re not accusing all of our political leadership of illegal activity. Au contraire — it’s an issue of so-called soft, or legal, corruption, which experts define as stuff many of us know is shady but that still isn’t banned, like promising lobbyists to get a certain bill passed in exchange for campaign contributions. Less than a quarter of Americans — surprise! — say they trust their government, close to the all-time low set during that 2013 federal shutdown. Or, put another way, things are so corrupt that Donald Trump can brag about having paid off politicians during a nationally televised debate and be lauded as the early front-runner in GOP presidential polls.
On this issue, we’re crying foul. Three branches of government may have worked for the founders, but they had horse-drawn carriages, not Hummers. Or special interest funds that flood billion-dollar elections. So here’s an idea: Take a leaf out of our national pastime and bring in a fourth branch of government. The umpires.
Not literally ball-and-mitt umps, of course. Picture instead a nonpartisan branch that could reject any law or section of a law that’s obvious partisan back-scratching. They’d figure out the latter by determining what’s not in “the general welfare,” says Stanford economist Bruce Owen, a public policy expert who beat us to the punch by suggesting exactly this in a recent paper. Examples: taxpayer-funded stadiums, which, experts say, typically don’t return investment to the public; gerrymandered districts; purposeless traffic roundabouts — pick your pork. Owen’s method: Eleven nonpartisan citizens would be nominated by members of both parties and ratified by a two-thirds Senate majority. These political referees would be given the right to line-item or outright veto any bill they judge rotten. Those vetoes might come around more often; Obama, after all, has only used four in seven years. Presidents don’t often kill bills over pork — what if it’s attached to, say, a major health care overhaul? — but citizens might.
This mental exercise may sound a little bit like swinging at air. After all, what defines “the general welfare”? Owen pegs it as an ordinary citizen’s right to the pursuit of happiness. But how would that concept apply to, say, foreign aid, or international trade? Does locating a submarine base in a key congressperson’s district reduce general welfare? “It’s not clear to me. The base has to go somewhere,” says Kermit Roosevelt, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. And, we wonder, would an ump nominated by Dems be likely to call out said Dems? It’s not as though SCOTUS judges even out to a completely apolitical body.
“The problem,” Owen admits, “is that most of this stuff is pretty technical.” Figuring out what counts as corrupt requires doing a whole lot of homework … not exactly something that’s America’s favorite pastime.