After Past Scandals, Real Reforms

Will the guilty plea of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff to charges of bribing public officials, tax evasion and fraud succeed in getting Congress to rein in lobbyists? Can any good really come out of congressional efforts to thwart corruption?

The cynics say no. Yet democratic reforms have come out of past scandals.

Many pessimists claim that reform is impossible because the United States today is suffering the worst corruption in the history of Congress. Even a cursory look at Congress in the late 19th century refutes that charge. In the past, votes — and political influence — were even more openly bought and sold than they are now.

In the Gilded Age, the period of rapid industrialization and urbanization that occurred after the Civil War, political machines used party control and local patronage to rule the nation’s small towns and big cities. From local offices right up through the presidency, back room deals routinely determined the nomination of candidates. The American system of presidential nominating conventions became a colossal travesty of representative government.

What ultimately changed things was public outrage, a stubborn refusal to accept corrupt politics as “business as usual.” Then as now, a few particularly egregious violations fueled the public’s denunciation of wholesale bribery and corruption.

One of the first was the 1872 Credit Mobilier scandal. Politicians had accepted gifts of stock in exchange for avoiding an inquiry into a money-laundering scheme of funds gained from fraudulently acquired government contracts. The events dominated headlines and culminated in a congressional investigation implicating many members of congress and other high ranking Republicans. Repercussions included the foundering of Schuyler Colfax’s candidacy for renomination as Grant’s vice president.

Indictments and convictions today are coming fast and furious. Gilded Age outrages mounted quickly as well. On the heels of Credit Mobilier was the scandal of the Whiskey Ring, which also involved high-level government officials. Federal politicians had conspired with distillers to defraud the government of tax revenues on the sale of whiskey. The fallout included the indictment of President Grant’s private secretary.

The fact that 90 percent of Americans today want a ban on lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers is promising. In the past, the outrage over flagrant violations of the principles of representative government disrupted the routine acceptance of corrupt practices. Outspoken opposition to the spoils system of rewarding political jobs substantially weakened once seemingly omnipotent machines. Politicians employing the tried and true methods of deal-making and bribery found themselves openly challenged rather than tolerated as inevitable.

Wisconsin’s great progressive, Robert La Follette, fought for the direct primary, civil service reform for state office officials, and a stringent anti-lobby law that required lobbyists to register with the secretary of state and to publish the details of contacts with legislators. Public support for these reforms at the turn of the last century swept La Follette and other like-minded progressives into the U.S. Senate, where they spread their anti-corruption agenda nationwide.

Our having to face anew widespread political corruption suggests that previous legislation was ultimately ineffective. Such an argument, however, ignores the meaningful long-term gains brought about by reformers in Congress during the era of progressive reform that followed the Gilded Age scandals. Two of the major accomplishments were the direct election of candidates, including U.S. senators, and civil service exams, ensuring that applicants would be judged by the strength of their qualifications rather than by the size of their kick-backs.

Scandals in the past prove that corruption, like hope, springs eternal. The good news here is not that there have been worse cases of corruption but that in the past periods of corruption gave birth to real change. The key is to keep the heat on Congress and not to allow loophole-ridden legislation to masquerade as genuinely democratic reform.

Nancy C. Unger is associate professor of history at Santa Clara University. She is author of “Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History” (Oxford University Press, 2012).

January, 2006