The real “culture of corruption”

Closed-door legislating can be more harmful than outright graft

There has been plenty of talk in the wake of the Sal DiMasi verdict about whether or not Massachusetts has a “culture of corruption.” The DiMasi situation is the standard pol-on-the-take scenario, a violation of public trust for private favor. But there may be a more corrosive form of corruption in Massachusetts, one we’ve nearly come to accept as routine, than DiMasi being open for business.

This sort of corruption is what Mark E. Warren discusses in a chapter titled “Is Low Trust in Democratic Institutions a Problem of Corruption?” in Michael A. Genovese and Victoria A. Farrar-Myers’ book Corruption in American Politics. Warren is less concerned with the lack of trust engendered by a politician seeking his own advantage and more with what he calls “duplicitous exclusion,” in which politicians shut citizens out from decisions that affect them. Such activity, argues Warren, can do more to undermine trust in government decision making than the relatively rare example of a politician having his hand out.

Consider Boston Globe reporter Noah Bierman’s story last Friday, “Legislators’ vital work veiled from public eye,” on lawmakers working through final details of the state budget in private.  Or a June 20 story Bierman wrote, “Gambling debated behind closed doors; Critics say public left without a role.” In it, he reported that the governor, Senate president, and House speaker were engaged in closed door meetings to hash out a compromise casino gambling bill. When they were challenged on the secretive nature of the negotiations, Bierman reported that the powerful triumvirate argued the casino legislation had been debated fully over the past years. Casino legislation has already been vetted and debated and discussed and fought over in the court of public opinion, so what more of a contribution could citizen input make?

Well, it may have been citizen input that helped foil prior efforts at casino gambling. After all, as Gov. Patrick faced re-election in 2010 his enthusiasm for gambling legislation waned. At least in part that seemed in consideration of the fact that the most energetic part of his coalition, progressives, hate the prospect of casino gambling. With the election over it is safe to revisit the issue. No need to hear more from the citizenry – not to mention the other 198 legislators who might be expected to have some say in a functioning democracy.

Warren argues that a healthy democracy should encourage trust in society by institutionalizing an active distrust in politics – specifically, that we acknowledge that politicians represent and favor particular interests and constituencies, so that the citizenry must have access to decision making to assure the process works fairly. Politics should foster conflict, not hide it. Warren writes that “Democracy works when it channels conflict into processes of deliberation, negotiation, bargaining, and voting.”

Warren asserts that it is not partiality that should concern us, but the kinds and sources of it. What sorts of influences are at play, money or argument? Who exerts influence, a precious few or all affected by the decision?  Are influences exerted and decisions made in a transparent or a secretive process?

Here’s another example.  After the 2003 decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, conservatives advanced a constitutional amendment to define marriage solely as the union between man and woman.  Organizers obtained the signatures of approximately 170,000 citizens who wished to see the amendment placed on the statewide ballot.  However, the matter first had to go before a constitutional convention composed of the members of the Senate and House and receive the support of 50 legislators before advancing to the statewide ballot. In December 2006, it appeared that the votes existed to advance the matter – but progressive legislators averted a vote by deciding to go into recess. Had the Legislature instead voted to adjourn, then-Gov. Mitt Romney could have called them back into session to vote.  Romney and others challenged the legislative maneuver in the courts and the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the constitutional convention had an obligation to vote on the amendment. Chastised legislators returned and voted to advance the amendment to the next session, where it was killed in an open process.

Interestingly, not only conservatives cheered the SJC’s decision but also some progressives who defined themselves as “process liberals.” They were derided by many other progressives, who usually advocate for transparency and adherence to law. Instead they found their Sir Galahad in the legislative leader who had used his muscle to round up the votes to go into recess. That leader, of course, was none other than House Speaker Sal DiMasi.

Most progressives did not criticize DiMasi for his procedural shenanigans. After all, he had been right – never mind our fellow citizens who had worked to get the signatures, or the signatories who sought a vote on the matter. There’s no real reason to pay them heed – they were wrong, and worse, backward. Had DiMasi’s stratagem prevailed the outcry might have been, “the system worked!”

Meet the Author

Maurice Cunningham

Assoc. Prof. of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Boston
Actually, the system worked in the case of United States v. DiMasi. As to whether it works when elected leaders huddle in secrecy to settle on gambling legislation that has failed for almost 20 years, or when legislative legerdemain is used to scuttle an amendment we find distasteful – well, the jury is still out.

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.