COMMENTARY: It’s no secret money and power flow to and from politics. Lots of it. This has been the modus operandi of our political system for much of our country’s history. Countering those politicians and money-waving influencers are supposed to be the mainstream media.
They’re supposed to watch for bad behavior in politicians and take the side of the citizens. But now they are taking sides for themselves in the political fights. They are vicious against the politicians they oppose while absent from the watchdog role with the politicians they support.
In the last 20 years, the Internet has blossomed into a watchdog role despite taking no vows to be accurate. With all of these eyes watching politicians you would think scummy behavior by elected officials would be as dead as television rabbit ears.
However, scummy behavior in politicians seems more rampant than ever. With the next session of the New Mexico Legislature underway, there are many initiatives looking to reign in the influence of money in politics. Transparency watchdogs are pushing for tougher reporting of campaign donations.
What it shows is that few people really understand the scummy side of politics. Paper shufflers and those who look at the paperwork only get a tiny look at scummy behavior. Filed paperwork only shows mistakes made in reporting but not the real intent.
The real players when major money is given and taken do not intend for it to be seen. When a willing bribe-giver and a willing bribe-taker exchange there is not any paperwork filed. If both parties are happy no one will talk about it. The same is true for those politicians who sell out for sexual rewards or jobs for relatives.
To see the real effect of money on politics you must look at a measured effect of the money. Not the decisions elected officials make, because there are always explanations. If someone is on the take, their net worth goes up. But the watchdogs are not looking at net wealth increases.
If watchdogs don’t look at the wealth effect, they will not see it. What needs to be done by the investigative reporters is very mundane and labor intensive: Chart every year of service by the net worth of the person serving. Start with the year before elected and keep a running tab on how their wealth changes.
There are ways to hide wealth with spouses and children and other relatives. But wealth sticks out in our society because to have wealth is to use it. Just piling up numbers in an account doesn’t do anyone any good. To have money is to spend money.
So when looking at a public servant on the take there will always be evidence of unbridled increase in wealth. This is especially so when you compare them to colleagues. Some people in politics will have a similar wealth before, during and after their years in service. Others hit the jackpot and pile up wealth.
Of course there will always be explanations:
I started a new way of investing. It is returning a thousand percent per month.
Can we see your market report?
It is important to treat each wealth inquiry fairly and not with partisan zeal so that some slip through while others are caught. For this to be useful we must catch everyone who spins up their wealth briskly while in office.
Questions of fantastic increases in wealth are not proof of taking bribes, but it certainly opens the door to looking very carefully. If this inquiry is automatic to all who are elected it will discourage bribes, because when caught politicians turn on the bribe-givers. There is no one thing to clean up politics, but this would help.
Most importantly, it is unfair to the honest servants of the people to look at them like they are chicken-killing dogs. The effect of the time served on honest politicians shows they give citizens a great gift of their time and effort while not taking any advantage of their position.
We owe them this inquiry to catch politicians who engage in scummy behavior. We would be left with honest and faithful servants.
Michael Swickard is a former radio talk show host and has been a columnist for 30 years in a number of New Mexico newspapers.