Political Reform

August 2017

Overrated Reform itself, at least its nineteenth-century version. That’s not to suggest that reforms were not needed or were doomed to futility as a counter to the corrupt urban political machines of the mid- and late 180Os. But the reformers who have been accorded historical halos were motivated by a good deal more than a desire to rid City Hall of thieving political bosses. Reform in those days had a tinge of ugly nativism about it. James Harper, an aristocratic publishing executive, was elected mayor of New York in 1844 as a reformer, but he also ran an explicitly anti-immigrant campaign. E. L.Godkin, founder of The Nation and one of reform’s most prominent voices, knew: Government ought to be in the hands of “thoughtful, educated, high-minded men” and not, you can be sure, of any huddled masses.

Underrated Since the 1970s many state and local governments have allowed sun to shine on one of our political system’s darkest recesses, lobbying. Lobbying was regulated in some form throughout the twentieth century, but only since the 1970s have lobbyists been forced to reveal their client lists, their compensations, their expenditures, and other information about those wishing to influence lawmaking and lawmakers. For example, if Mega Chocolate, Inc., wants to influence a bill banning the sale of candy bars to children under 18, its lobbying activities and expenses will in many states be on the public record for public inspection. And if Mega Chocolate, Inc., happens to hire a lobbying firm that happens to employ the son, daughter, spouse, parent, or ex-law partner of the mayor or governor, that, too, must be entered on the public record. Lobbying disclosure laws can’t prevent sleazy dealmaking, but they do at least deny sleaze a place to hide.