Issue 86 • Week of September 10, 2023 / Updated December 23, 2023
As the US faces another potential government shutdown, ethicists remain concerned about federal employees' past attempts for the audacity to provide for their children during possible furloughs through crowdfunding. Yet Supreme Court justices and members of Congress, who are typically 8x wealthier than the median American family or 12x richer than the average American household respectively, evade punishment for far worse transgressions.
One year ago this past week, a federal district judge unsealed the FBI search warrant for an outgoing North Carolina senator after a year of litigation by the Los Angeles Times. He was suspected of criminal insider trading and securities fraud when he avoided $87K in losses and profited $164K from the sale of 95% of his IRA while receiving daily intelligence updates six days before the stock market plummeted on February 20, 2020 due to pandemic fears. Previously, he was one of only three senators to vote against the STOCK Act of 2012 that now explicitly bars members of Congress from insider trading.
He was never charged and served out the remainder of his term. He is not alone; others in Congress on both sides of the aisle have profited off of early information, also without consequences.
Unfortunately, insider trading is just one ethical concern when it comes to money in politics. Lavish, unreported gifts and trips such as those currently under the microscope for the Supreme Court (but mostly ignored in Congress) invite Americans to question how impartial officials really are on their behalf.
The burden for proving corruption has been reinterpreted since 1976 to essentially require evidence of quid pro quo, akin to the actual bribery menu offered by one convicted ex-representative. Most politicians are more careful and are able to withstand scrutiny or successfully appeal. However, elected officials are still beholden to fundraising. Both major political parties recommend to those in Congress that they spend 30 hours per week or as much as 80% of their time courting donors, which far outweighs their actual job of representing constituents. Such an obvious imbalance erodes faith in legislators and can quickly sap the energy of those newly elected.
More than three quarters of Americans want to limit the amount of money that individuals and groups can spend on political campaigns and two thirds believe such laws would be effective in reducing the role of money in politics.