All Commentary
Wednesday, July 1, 1998

America’s Permanent Criminal Class

Becoming a Member of the Political Class Almost Automatically Turns One into a Professional Criminal


Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

Dan Rostenkowski is on the comeback trail, Although convicted of and jailed for misusing his office, the former Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee has become a senior statesman of sorts, dispensing political advice to businesses and his former colleagues. Obviously neither crime nor punishment is an impediment to success in Washington.

Still, the number of convicted criminals in Congress seems remarkably low. After all, events in Washington appear to offer definitive proof that politicians are congenital criminals. How else to explain the lying, cheating, and stealing that permeate the legislative process? How else to explain the unending looting of the body politic justified in terms of the public interest? Indeed, the alternative hypothesis, that they really are that stupid, is almost too horrifying to contemplate. Obviously, the American judicial system is failing to do its job.

Some members of the Washington, D.C., police force inadvertently made this point two years ago when they blocked off streets around the Capitol in anticipation of the President’s State of the Union speech. Instead of using the standard markers, “Police Line–Do Not Cross,” they put up yellow tape emblazoned “Crime Scene.” Unfortunately, the cops failed to arrest any of the miscreants.

Since most of what America’s unindicted and unconvicted legislators do is criminal, perhaps voters should be more forgiving of those who get caught. That seems to be the practice in other nations.

In India, for instance, criminals frequently run for office. Of course, they don’t always win. Dharam Pal Yadav was defeated for reelection in the recent election, He had been charged with 25 crimes, including six murders. An aide explained: “It all depends on what you call crime, If it’s a political crime, it’s not really a crime.” Dan Rostenkowski could not have put it better.

Taiwan has created a positive incentive for criminals to enter politics. Officials usually aren’t prosecuted for their crimes. The police must get permission from the legislature, provincial or national, to arrest a member. Such permission is rarely granted.

“We have a saying,” explains political science professor Yang Tai-shuenn: “If you get elected, you become an official. If you don’t get elected, you go to jail.” At one point 136 of 175 members of the country’s provincial assembly and the two largest city councils had been convicted of various offenses; another five had been indicted. An incredible 312 of 858 county and city officials had been convicted and another 112 were under indictment. Three-fourths of the speakers and deputy speakers of city councils had been indicted.

Many of them were charged with buying votes, a tradition in Taiwan. Others were indicted for allegedly rigging bids and abusing their office in the sale of state property. Some were charged with more usual crimes. Explains Mr. Yang: “Many people involved in the underground and mafia in Taiwan tend to run for public office to get away from punishment.”

And also to improve the efficiency of their criminal operations. Chao Yung-mao of Chinian University says that gaining power is “a way to upgrade their business. They need political [influence] to protect them.” Rather like in America, where businessmen typically hire politicians to protect them from their competitors.

Immunity for criminals is not completely unknown in America. To prevent politically inspired arrests, many states along with the federal government exempt legislators from arrest on their way to vote or while the legislature is in session. A decade ago Senator Roger Jepsen of Iowa used such a provision of the U.S. Constitution to avoid a Virginia traffic ticket; alas, his constituents were less forgiving than Taiwanese voters and sent him into early retirement. An aide to Virginia’s lieutenant governor later claimed immunity to avoid a drunk driving charge. A Virginia legislator used the same tactic to win dismissal of a charge of indecent exposure.

But it would be better to move in the other direction. Instead of immunizing legislators, we should criminalize more of their actions. The very same state of Virginia has a law, rarely enforced, holding school board members responsible for any overspending. In 1990 the King George County Board of Supervisors threatened to petition the local circuit court to remove members of the local school board for malfeasance after the school board ran a $500,000 deficit in a $13 million budget. Three members, who had been appointed by the supervisors, resigned.

Similarly, in 1996, after the Virginia Beach School Board ran a $12.1 million deficit, local Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Humphrey called a grand jury to investigate the financial mess. It indicted two school board members; seven others resigned rather than face charges. “None of these people deserve to go to jail, but they screwed up,” explained Mr. Humphrey. “It happened on their watch.”

Such an approach would have wide application at the federal level. When (not if) Congress breaches the spending caps agreed to only last year, the Justice Department should sue legislators for violating the budget provisions. When (not if) Congress creates new spending programs after proclaiming its commitment to smaller, more efficient government, taxpayers should file a class-action lawsuit against the miscreants. When (not if) the loudest proponents of federalism, individual liberty, and similar values violate their promises and expand Washington’s power, outraged citizens should force them to resign. But it’s not enough to simply toss politicians out of office. Maybe Humphrey is right to believe that incompetent school board members don’t deserve to go to jail. But most congressmen do. Forget term limits. Let them serve the full sentence.

If this seems too harsh, then consider an alternative. Instead of prosecuting politicians, send them away with full pay. For many legislators there is no higher priority. Last year Turkish legislators resisted a call for new elections because they wanted to remain in office for at least two years in order to qualify for generous government pensions. It would have been simpler to have paid them off if they promised never to darken Ankara’s steps again.

Public service would be an honorable occupation if government performed the limited role of creating a framework for a free society, thereby safeguarding individual liberty. But in today’s world, where government is simultaneously an obnoxious meddler and violent thief, becoming a member of the political class almost automatically turns one into a professional criminal.

So let’s treat politicians accordingly. Let them choose–between resignation, exile, or jail. Then the rest of us can live in peace.


  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.