We have a conceit in this country that the closer power gets to "the people," the more virtuous it is. Your local town council members are fine upstanding folks, your state legislature is still close enough to be "in touch," but those people up in Washington don't know or care a darn bit about you, and are probably on the take.
The truth, however, is that Congress is probably less corrupt than at any point in our history. Real old-fashioned corruption, of the briefcase-full-of-cash kind, is extremely rare (though it still happens, as with William Jefferson, he of the $90,000 stuffed in the freezer). That isn't to say that malfeasance doesn't still occur, not to mention the many things that ought to be illegal but aren't, like taking campaign contributions from industries your committee regulates. But on the whole, today's member of Congress is far less likely to be corrupt than her counterpart of 100 years ago.
It's nice to get a reminder now and then that the real brazen stuff is more likely to occur at the state and local level, where regulations tend to be more lax and the glare of the spotlight is far dimmer. Christopher Ketcham has a terrific article (behind a pay wall) in last month's Harper's about the New York Legislature, possibly the worst in the country by just about any measure you can come up with. Here's a taste:
Over the previous decade, fourteen legislators had left office due to felony crimes, misconduct, and ethical improprieties, five of them in 2008 alone. The Republican Joseph Bruno, senate majority leader for fourteen years, resigned in 2008 amid suspicion that he had accepted $3.2 million from companies doing business with the state. That same year, Assemblyman Tony Seminerio, a Democrat from Queens who had spent thirty years in office, was caught taking $1 million in secret payments from local hospitals in exchange for promises of inside access to the legislative process. Another Queens Democrat, Brian McLaughlin, a labor leader and assemblyman, pleaded guilty to racketeering in 2008 for his role in the embezzlement of more than $2 million in state and union funds. Assemblywomen Gloria Davis and Diane Gordon, both New York City Democrats, were convicted in 2003 and 2008, respectively, of taking bribes.
And the bribery is only the beginning. Whenever some new state scandal comes up, people start arguing about which state is the most corrupt. Illinois! New Jersey! South Carolina! It's not an argument that can really be settled, because the fact is, there's a lot of corruption all over the place. And being close to "the people" often makes it easier to get away with.
-- Paul Waldman