What Joe Biden Needs to Say About Government Corruption

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Last week, Joe Biden, took aim at the federal government’s handling of various pandemic lockdown disaster relief programs. “Let me issue a warning right now to anyone who participates in the corrupt giveaways of President Trump and his administration to review every stimulus loan given to any big company or political insider,” Biden vowed. “Every single one."

The idea that Joseph R. Biden Jr. is now a fighter of government corruption is simultaneously laudable and laughable. Polling done earlier this year by John Della Volpe for RealClear Opinion Research as part of the ongoing “We Need Smith” project found that government corruption was the number one issue in the minds of registered voters in this country. It beat out 24 other issues, including the cost and availability of health insurance, jobs and unemployment, gun violence and mass shootings, income inequality, and climate change. This finding is consistent with other surveys. For the past seven years, government corruption and ethics (or lack thereof) has consistently ranked among the top three issues that Americans care about.

While the current coronavirus crisis has no doubt reordered our priorities, Biden’s attempt to grab the corruption-fighter mantle is durably good politics. Voters hate what they accurately perceive to be a system that is built for the benefit of insiders -- big business, incumbent politicians, lobbyists, special interests, corporate media, mega donors, and other entrenched parties with disproportionate clout in Washington.

What makes Biden’s position laughable is that it’s coming from the consummate D.C. insider -- a perpetual wader in the fetid swamp of government corruption who knows every reptile and buried stump by name. In the coming debate with Donald Trump over who is more corrupt, Joe Biden’s past makes it likely that this issue will be fought to a draw among the American electorate.

If Biden wants to change that perspective, he needs to stand for something, in both word and deed, that demonstrates he truly understands and will fight the corruption in Washington in an effort to deliver better results for the American people. The next time he decides to take to video, he might want to try something like this: 

I understand that so many of you feel that you have been left behind. You rightfully believe that our political system has been rigged against you, in favor of the economic elite and special interests who are able to buy access to power. As someone who has a been a part of that system for decades, I can say, you are right and I am sorry for whatever role I’ve played in allowing that system to continue.

But there’s a benefit to electing someone with my experience. I know how the game is played, and am 100% percent dedicated to fixing it – not with slogans or promises, but with real policies that will end the corruption and give the American people a fighting chance. Every other policy change that we are fighting for from climate change to reducing prescription drug prices to making our tax code more equitable is dependent on us getting this right.

My party has consistently stood for the belief that we desperately need to take the corrupting influence of special interest money and conflicts of interest out of our politics. But the prescriptions we have advocated for in the past have focused solely on parties outside of Capitol Hill. They are half-measures that will only go so far to change the culture of Washington and the behavior of your elected representatives. Today, I am going to go further than anyone has gone in the past in advocating for real change in our nation’s capital.

It is estimated that more than 70% of members of Congress and even a larger percentage of their staff move directly from Capitol Hill to lobbying positions when they leave office – up from 17% at the beginning of the 1980s. Ask yourself a simple question: Do you think that those members are thinking about how to enhance their future lobbying careers when they consider legislation that affects the very interests from whom they will be looking to for to for a lobbying job? To ask the question is to answer it! I propose a simple solution: a lifetime ban on lobbying for members of Congress and senior administration officials. Government service should be exactly that – service to a cause larger than ourselves – not a steppingstone to a seven-figure job lobbying your former colleagues to get money out of the public treasury.

I also believe we need to break the transactional nature of political fundraising. Those who are paid to lobby the administration or Congress should be prohibited from contributing, bundling contributions, or holding fundraisers for federal candidates or federal PACs. I have no problem with interest groups and industries exercising their First Amendment rights. I have a huge problem with them buying votes and access with campaign dollars. Today, I am standing firm that our government is not for sale!

Speaking of fundraising, I also believe members of Congress should be prohibited from raising money for their campaigns while Congress is in session. When they are in the nation’s capital being paid by the American people, they shouldn’t be spending the majority of their time in call rooms and cocktail parties serving themselves instead of their constituents. Congress is paid to work for the American people. It’s time we live up to that obligation.

We also need to end leadership PACs once and for all. These entities have no restrictions on how their funds are used. Want a no-show job for your kid? Pay it out of the leadership PAC. Want to travel on a private plane to a fundraising event? Pay for it out of your leadership PAC. Want to buy blind loyalty and obedience from members of your caucus? You guessed it, use your leadership PAC. These political slush funds are financed almost exclusively by special interests, have no place in our politics, and should be banned.

These are just the first steps that I plan to take as part of a sustained assault on the corruption in our nation’s capital. It is a down payment on my commitment to make our government more responsive to the needs of Americans and to reduce the sway of those who would buy influence at the expense of the rest of us.

While this wouldn’t win Biden any friends among the party leaders or K Street lobbyists who are celebrating his nomination, Americans want it. Polling also shows that: Over 82% of Americans, including solid majorities among both Democrats and Republicans, support the first three reforms outlined above.

In 2016, Donald Trump won, in part, because he painted Bill and Hillary Clinton as “corrupt.” He told the American people he knew this because he had basically bribed them – and other political elites of both parties --– for years with campaign contributions. In truth, Trump was a paltry political donor by modern standards, but he identified the problem correctly. As president, he hasn’t done a thing about it. Biden could do Trump one better: I know the system is corrupt because I participated in it all my adult life, he could say. And I know how to fix it, he could add – and if you elect me president in 2020, by God I’ll do it.

Greg Orman is a Kansas entrepreneur, author of “A Declaration of Independents” and a former independent candidate for governor and senator of his state.  

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