Neal Milner: Resist Simplistic Solutions To Government Corruption - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeTwo misguided reforms are floating around during this legislative session. One is term limits. The other is the crusade to stop corruption.

Term limits don’t solve problems that people want them to solve, and in many ways make things worse. That is what extensive research shows.

The corruption crusade is not wrong on its face. Of course, we should reduce corruption. But the crusade we see taking place is wrong because it is more like a moral panic than a rational response.

Extreme job security: In redistricting years, legislators like to protect their own by trying their darnedest to arrange the legislative districts so that two incumbent legislators don’t have to run against one another, God forbid.

Legislators, you are not a Youngstown steel factory’s shop floor struggling to keep the company from moving to Mexico.

You are not supposed to have job security.

Extreme job insecurity: That job-saving behavior puts another arrow in the quiver of justifications for throwing the rascals out.

“Term-limit ’em!”

But what often comes out of the quiver isn’t an arrow but a blunt instrument.

No surprise that many who want to throw the rascals out see term limits as a solution because term limits are the ultimate job insecurity.

If an elected official faces term limits, after a certain number of terms she goes bye-bye. Period. Out comes the bad air, in comes the good.

Competence, though, is good air, which is a key part of reasons why term limits don’t work.

Now, if you want term limits just because you are sick and tired of the same old rascals and want those rascals out, fine. “Throw ‘em all out. Put ‘em on the ship of fools.”

That’s a legitimate response. It’s just not a rational one. By any other criteria, term limits do much damage.

Studies show that if you drain the swamp, you don’t change the culture. You just create another swamp, this one possibly even murkier and smellier.

The sort of candidates who run for office in term-limited legislatures does not change. No emergence of citizen legislators. No pack of Mr. Smiths going to Washington to fight corruption.

To understand term limits’ limits, go back to the idea that all those rascals should be put on a ship of fools. The ship of fools comes from a story that Plato told in The Republic to show the value of expertise.

The captain of that ship was the expert. The passengers knew nothing about seacraft. Still, they thought they could be captain. Good luck with that. Disaster.

Term limits bring in people Plato would consider fools. Let’s be more generous, less elitist, and more democratic and call them not fools but rookies.

Rookies don’t know much, as in “rookie mistakes.” So, they need mentors, people who have been around for a long time. Guess who?

Whatever you think about legislators, legislating is a hard job that takes a good deal of time to master. Try figuring out the state budget, not just what the numbers are but where the bodies are buried. And over time, a legislator develops both subject matter knowledge and knowledge about who knows what.

So, when you evict the experts, you create a vacuum of knowledge. And, as it turns out, this vacuum is likely filled with experienced mentors like lobbyists and special interest groups.

Which is a key reason why, as the research shows, term limits do not reduce inside influence or corruption and in fact may increase it.

The Crusade Against Corruption: Another Blunt Instrument

The fight against corruption has become a crusade based on moral panic.

Moral panic exists when there is a widespread sense that an evil force is threatening the community.

“Evil,” “crusade” — that sounds like, well, The Crusades, which is not a model I would choose for bringing about social change.

Like other panics, moral panics make people misperceive, to see things that really aren’t there, and to miss important things that are.

The response to our two legislators recently getting caught with their hands in the till, or in one case, in the seat cushion, has been just crazy and over the top.

So much hand wringing. So much talk about a “culture of corruption,” which has an “evil all around us” feel.

Politicians giving back campaign contributions, calls for special investigation units, ethics workshops, campaign spending and fundraising regulations. Special units to root out corrupters.

Former HPD Chief Louis Kealoha and Katherine Kealoha arrive at District Court.
The scandal involving former HPD Chief Louis Kealoha and his prosecutor wife Katherine Kealoha really did highlight the need to root out a culture of corruption. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Some of these have more value than others, but it is the marshaling of forces/crusade against a common enemy tone that is the problem.

So here are five ways of thinking that could put us on the right track by increasing the subtlety and decreasing the noise.

First, the differences in recent Hawaii corruption cases are much greater than their similarities.

The Kealohas’ case was about extraordinary venality, along with key parts of criminal justice organizations — including HPD, the Honolulu Police Commission, and the prosecutor’s office — that either took part in the activities or looked the other way.

And if you think that any of the common corruption-crusade policies would deter the kind of widespread greed and corruption seen in the Kealoha case, you had better look at Alex Silvert’s book about it.

The Kealoha case really does indicate a culture of corruption that requires deep, complicated organizational change, along with quite possibly more prosecutions.

Compared to this, bribery is simple — a walk in the park, then back to the casino to cash your chips.

Second, there is no evidence that bribery is common among legislators. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. You believe that this lack of evidence shows just how good the legislators are at getting away with it.

Insert snide, knowing skepticism here.

The fewer the cases, the worse the problem — that’s your belief? It sounds a little too much like a conspiracy theory to me.

Believing in that theory has significant costs. It exaggerates the seriousness of the problem, and it pays too little attention to the most serious problem. See #5 below.

Four, many of the reforms are naïve gestures. Others are more of the same in the constant cat-and-mouse game of controlling campaign finances and diminishing the chances legislators have to meet with the money people.

They are more of the same because there is no dramatic alternative. Realistically, it is trench warfare more than a crusade.

Five, the most serious problem is the huge difference between those who have influence and those who don’t.

It’s about the disproportionate influence of people who are connected, who really know what’s going on and have the ear of the right people; knowing how to get in touch, to become strategically important to those in power.

And of course, those who can afford legally maximum campaign contributions — no questions asked because there is no need to.

In short, not like most of us.

How can we reduce this disparity? That’s for another time. For sure, it would have little to do with bribery or corruption laws.

Instead, the focus would be on helping good people get more influence rather than punishing the bad ones who have it now.

But it’s time to stop relying on the same formulas and tropes and outdated definitions of the problem.

It feels too much like someone who keeps looking for her keys under the same streetlamp because that’s where the light is.

Read this next:

These Solutions To Hawaii's Problems Are At Hand

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Your right the research is clear term-limits don't make things better and often make them worse. The biggest problem is not illegal corruption it is legal corruption. Here are a few useful ideas I support suggested by Gary Hooser.Ban the practice of political fundraising during the legislative session.End the unilateral power of a committee chair.Require public votes to defer bills indefinitely, or to otherwise kill a bill.Ultimately, we need to put a stop to all the legal gifts, campaign donations, favors, cushy jobs after office as a rewards. Illegal bribes are rare because they are unnecessary and usually only used by the politically unsophisticated. You can legally buy control of a legislature for a single issue fairly easy if you have the resources. We have set up a system that rewards the fools and the crooks, and drives out honest people who aren't willing to sacrifice everything in the long-shot hope of being heard.Michael Christopher Psy.D., Ph.D.

mchristopher · 1 year ago

Isn't funny that when a Bill addressing something to do regarding the Lawmakers here in Hawaii come up for a vote in front of the Legislators, it ends up being tabled or ignored until the "rock" falls from the sky and one of the Lawmakers brings it back up for debate, how about we, the people, decide on sensitive bills such as limiting terms, Or have a say on how corruption suspicions are handled, for example setting up a board/committee of "common" citizens to look over the evidence @ hand and decide if there is enough evidence to turn over to the AG . I would even say put it to a public vote . Many of things could happen if my 2 suggestions I made above would be considered - If there is enough evidence and handed over to the AG, there would be no "slap" on the hand like now ,and make it to where if any kind of deal is made (Plea agreement) , it would be much harder to accept.

unclebob61 · 1 year ago

Well written pice. What we are witness to is a simplistic knee jerk reaction to public outrage and political shame. As pointed out here things like term limits and no fundraisers during the legislative session are bandaids are truly do nothing to remedy a broken system. I only have one suggestion and that would be publicly funded elections, where everyone would have equal funds and media exposure. Post your views and let the people decide if you should represent them.

wailani1961 · 1 year ago

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