When Power Corrupts

Political reforms within the Congress of the United States are hard to come by. But, just for the sake of argument, let’s say that our esteemed lawmakers would agree to three simple limits of their own power — what should they be?

The goal here is not to place limits on the ability of members of Congress to do the work of the people, but rather to take away some of the incentives to abuse that power. With that in mind, let’s look at three reforms that come up often — and how they might be helpful.

A total elimination of the Income Tax Code is the perfect place to start.

Simply put, the income tax is the government’s way of controlling the behavior of businesses and individuals. It is the most complicated and convoluted law that we have in America today, and no one — not even the IRS — fully understands it. Big Business and other interest groups simply understand that they want their piece of the code — and they’re willing to do what it takes to elect the person that will give it to them.

Without the code, we’d do away with “targeted tax cuts” that government uses to control behavior. Presidents would not be able to use IRS audits to threaten political opponents as Bill Clinton was accused of doing.

Americans would not have to spend more than $250 billion per year in compliance costs. Best of all, the power of Congress to exchange favorable income tax legislation for political contributions would be gone.

Now let’s add the reform of term limits, something the Republicans championed until they came into power. The Founding Fathers believed in a “citizen legislature” in which people “served” and then returned to the private sector. In fact, the Constitution originally called for United States senators to be appointed by the state legislatures, thereby placing a tremendous amount of power at the state level. Think about that. In a large state like California or Texas, how much direct contact do you have with your United States senators? Likely, none at all. But you probably have much easier access to your state senator or representative. So the 17th Amendment gave you the right to vote for your senator directly, but in so doing, actually diminished your power.

Reasonable term limits could serve to make senators and representatives more responsible. Twelve years is what I’ve suggested for all elected offices.

That would mean that a United States senator would have one term during which reelection would be looming — and one term in which it would not matter. It would work a bit differently for representatives who are elected for two-year terms. Still, they could serve only six terms. The powerful seniority system in Congress would be less important because no one would serve long enough to build a kingdom, and all states and districts would get fairer representation.

With term limits, members of Congress would not spend every waking minute in fund-raising, and would not feel the need to buy elections with earmarks — at least not to the current extent. The power of the incumbency would be taken down a peg, leading to a greater turnover and lots of fresh ideas in Washington.

Now let’s add one little dynamo of a reform — namely, a lifetime ban on elected officials becoming professional lobbyists. Now we’ve come close to returning the government to the people. If a politician knows at the time he gets elected that he can never “cash in” on his government service, then his attitude toward sleazy lobbyists like Jack Abramoff is likely to be different. No more possibilities of “Hey, if I get this bill passed for your client, maybe there’s a goldmine waiting for me at your firm somewhere down the line.”

Just imagine no Income Tax Code, strict term limits, and no “cashing in” with a lobbying firm once the political career is over. The power of PACs, lobbyists, and major campaign contributors would be severely lessened. We wouldn’t need McCain-Feingold or any other campaign finance law.

When power corrupts, it can corrupt a tiny bit — or absolutely. But why send good men and women to Washington — or to the state capitals — and have them become corrupted time and again? All we need are a few sensible reforms to remove most of the temptations of office.