Members of the U.S. Congress are by and large prohibited from engaging in outside employment for third parties while in office. Sometimes this has really, really perverse effects, such as Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, who is a licensed surgeon, wanting to do just enough paid work to afford to keep himself insured while he maintains his license, and not being able to do so. Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist (which is, let’s point out, a medical degree, in contrast to a degree in optometry), has the same issue. They fall afoul of the law of unintended consequences. Having members of Congress be on someone else’s payroll while in office — as Daniel Webster was, by the way; he was thoroughly on the take (as outlined in some detail in The Great Triumvirate) for interests with matters in front of the very committees Webster sat on — is just a bad idea, and so it’s prohibited. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen anyway, with congresscritters and others — Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas was on the mafia payroll while on the court.
Nor does the prohibition apply to the general making of money. Newt Gingrich got himself in the soup for taking a book advance, but — at least as I understand it — he would not have been prohibited from writing a book and receiving royalties from it. It was the advance bit that crossed the line. And of course, there are at least some members of Congress who, despite a lifetime in “public service” seem to have got extraordinarily wealthy while in office, notwithstanding the very real financial demands arising from shuttling back and forth between one’s constituency and Washington, as well as living in one of the most expensive cities in the country while on the job. Henry Reid of Nevada is one such; he’s never really held a job, and yet his financial disclosures show he has done himself handsomely well.
Suffice it to say the system isn’t perfect. Every rule you can think up can be circumvented, somehow, by someone sufficiently devious who has enough people willing to assist him. About all you can do is expose the crooks and vote against them . . . rinse and repeat.
On the other hand, it seems the British Parliament does not prohibit outside employment by third parties for MPs. How does that system work?
This is how it works. There are, it seems, MPs making up to £1,600 per hour (as of today’s exchange rate of $1.5436 per pound, that’s $2,469.76 per hour) working for someone other than the British taxpayer. Is either the fact of that employment or its rate of compensation inherently improper? Well, no. In fact, there is a legitimate argument to be made that denying members of the legislature actual, real-world, pay-it-out-of-your-own-pocket experience outside the bubble of national politics results in worse decision-making in the legislative chamber:
“To answer this we need to ask what we want our MPs to be: a professional cadre of career politicians with no outside interests; or people with jobs and connections in the real world beyond Westminster. To that end, is getting well-paid for joining a board of directors primarily on account of past ministerial experience the same as continuing to follow a career as a doctor, dentist or barrister once in the House? Both constitute outside interests but are clearly very different. * * * In the modern world, voters expect their elected representatives to be full-time parliamentarians, assiduously working on their constituency caseload, for which they are paid some £67,000 a year plus expenses. But this risks turning Parliament into a glorified council rather than the cockpit of debate on issues of national importance.”
For a specific example from history, about the only way Churchill was able to remain in Parliament during his wilderness years, from 1932 through September, 1939, was his prolific writing, for which he was paid. Is anyone going to argue that having him vanish from public life would have been a preferable outcome? And I suppose it’s possible to be worth $2,469.76 per hour to someone. But we may legitimately ask precisely what a Member might possibly be doing for someone who is able to pay that kind of money per hour, and why that person thinks those services are worth that sort of money. That is a much-less-settling thought.
Because, you see, some of those MPs at least are not just working, they’re selling themselves in their capacities as MPs. Both are former members of the cabinet, foreign ministers. One is Labour, the other Conservative. Both were caught on camera offering a Chinese company to use their status and stature as senior politicians to provide privileged access to the power-brokers of their worlds for fees of at least £5,000 per day. The “Chinese company” of course turned out to be nothing of the sort; they got caught by a sting run by The Daily Telegraph and Channel 4 news. Both are now resigning from Parliament. Neither appears to be terribly apologetic about it.
Whatever the theoretical arguments on both sides of the outside-compensation issue, it’s hard to suggest that this whoring of one’s office does not cross any line you can draw anywhere. I’m not sure I which I find more objectionable — that they were so brazen about what they were doing, or that they were willing to do it for the Chinese. Because make no mistake: If you’re doing business with any Chinese company outside China, you’re actually doing business with the Chinese government. Anyone who thinks that the Chinese government is some sort of morally neutral actor who’s only in it to make a dollar and go home peacefully to enjoy the fruits of his labor is just nuts.
At least, however, the British are up in arms about this. We, on the other hand, patiently await the shrieks of protest from the
palace guard lamestream media about Hillary Clinton’s foundation opening wide the floodgates to foreign donations, in advance of her putative run for the White House. This from the political machine that gave us “no controlling precedent” in accepting campaign contributions from Red China.
Once upon a time, when Billy Carter, the then-president’s brother, went to work for the Libyans, it was a major scandal here. As Inspector Clouseau would say, “Not any more.” I guess it remains to be seen how Britain, with a very different tradition regarding MPs and their “regular jobs,” deals with this, or not.
But how surprised can we really be, no matter from which side of the pond we look at it?