As the Days of Trump bring me into principled conflict with people with whom I’ve had no reason to discuss politics for… oh… a quarter century, the guilty plea of the former Rhode Island House Finance Chairman, Bristol Democrat Ray Gallison, presents a good opportunity for me to give an example of how I come to such wildly different opinions from people who believe their conclusions are common sense. That gap can lead those folks to assume there’s some evil defect in my thinking or beliefs, when it’s ultimately just a different calculation.
What strikes me, in particular, is U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha’s statement that “Mr. Gallison was stealing from wherever he could.” For a portion of my carpentry career, I worked for a contractor who told me of his previous experience with Gallison, who (the contractor told me) leveraged his political connections to avoid the consequences for not paying the bill for his project. He just got away with it, plain and simple, and the small-time builder calculated that it would be better just to move on than to fight a politician and a system that might be corrupt through and through. When your slam-dunk case at the first level of the legal process finds no net, the safe bet is that the rule of law does not exist all the way up the chain.
Those of us who skirt the edges of Rhode Island’s political system periodically notice the problem of incentives. For the average working person, participating in local or state government — especially the General Assembly — looks like a painful way to do some good for your community. The hours can be ridiculous; you’ve always got a political target on your back; and even when there is pay, it’s nowhere near sufficient to offset a reasonable calculation of the cost to your life.
All of this means that our political system has a built-in bias for the sorts of people who can profit from elected positions in some other way. As a general matter, that’s not a wicked impulse; we all must make a living and price our activities accordingly. But the truth of the matter is that this is really a built-in bias for corruption. Maybe a lawyer just has a better brand if he’s a legislator. Maybe a business owner can change regulatory rules to his benefit. Maybe a retired union teacher puts in her well-pensioned time in with the General Assembly out of gratitude for the sweet package that previous union teachers’ similar involvement afforded her. Or maybe they just piece together whatever little profits they can. “Mr. Gallison was stealing from wherever he could.”
This is why I’ve cut against the small-government grain a bit to suggest that we should consider making the General Assembly a full-time job. It’s also why I’m skeptical of campaign finance and other “good government” strategies for reducing corruption. Consider the official Gallison-related statement from Common Cause RI:
Common Cause sent a letter today to the Board of Elections requesting an audit of campaign accounts of all members of the General Assembly. To restore the public’s faith that our lawmakers are not using their campaign accounts as personal piggybanks, the Board of Elections needs to issue a report reconciling the public filings of all legislators with their most recent bank statements.
Common Cause also sent a letter to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission requesting an audit of the financial disclosure statements of all members of the General Assembly. To restore the public’s faith that members of the Assembly are not using their public office to benefit themselves, or businesses or non-profits with whom they are connected, the Ethics Commission needs to issue a public report verifying the accuracy of the most recent financial disclosure filings.
Activist types don’t seem to believe it’s true, but I can tell you as a fact that the idea that they’d have to hand over their bank accounts, investments, and other family details for public scrutiny (often by people who have a corrupt professional interest in embarrassing or harassing them) severely limits Rhode Islanders’ willingness to run for office. It can be a challenge to keep track of campaign finance reporting schedules sufficiently to avoid the $25 fines and an imposition to disclose things that an honest person knows to have no relevance to a position on some local board. Anybody who can’t see that, it seems to me, either knows he or she will never run for public office or has some ulterior motive — like Gallison — for going through the trouble of all these filings.
There is a balance to be struck, certainly, but Rhode Island is well on the side of overdoing it when it comes to regulating politics (to an unconstitutional degree, I’d argue). Cracking down in response to Gallison is a sure way of limiting political participation, which is a sure way of ensuring that the environment that created Gallison flourishes.
Want to reduce corruption in the General Assembly? Make it easier to run and limit the length of time that individuals can serve. Anything else is, at best, nice-sounding busy work that ultimately contributes to the sense that nothing can be done and, at worse, a corrupt part of the problem.