Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York State Assembly, was arrested last week on federal corruption charges, sending shock waves through New York’s political circles. He is accused of accepting millions of dollars in disguised bribes for more than a decade. Silver allegedly asked developers with business before the state to spend money on a law firm that, in turn, paid Silver for legal work he never did. He was able to disguise the source of the income for so long because New York, like the vast majority of other states, considers its legislature to be “part time,” freeing up legislators to maintain legitimate outside jobs, as well as their government work.
Such outside payments are ripe for unscrupulous dealings (or, at very least, the appearance of impropriety), and have long been decried by anticorruption forces. Outside payments were a primary focus of Governor Cuomo’s anticorruption Moreland Commission, which the Governor then disbanded under pressure from legislators. Governor Cuomo recently proposed a new commission to look at ways to increase disclosure of outside income and to cap the amount of outside income legislators may receive. While Cuomo’s new proposals would be a good start, they do not go far enough. The time has come to ban outside legal work for state legislators and to compensate them fairly for the full time job the people elected them to do.
Allowing legislators to accept outside employment could at first seem like a good tool to fight corruption. The current base pay in the New York Legislature is $75,000, far less than many legislators could earn in a dozen other fields. By leaving open the path for legitimate outside earnings that are several times their public pay, we might be able to attract more people to run for public office and reduce the incentive for bribery.
Studies have shown that higher pay for public servants reduces the incidence of corruption; the question then becomes whether allowing public servants to make outside money has an effect similar to that of raising their salary, or–as in the case of Sheldon Silver–whether it in fact does the opposite.
New York Times columnist David Brooks has suggested that many in the higher echelons of public service suffer from “status-income disequilibrium” or SID: the power they enjoy at work pushes them into the country’s elite, but their financial status is that of the comparatively paltry upper-middle class. Sufferers of SID could see corruption as merely a way to restore them to their rightful place among the economic elite. Following that logic, it could be a good idea to allow a legitimate path for legislators to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside income to align their financial portfolios more closely with their position in the political power structure.
But despite this possible advantage, in practice allowing legislators to consider their public work as part-time leaves too many avenues for corruption. The problem cannot be remedied solely by more carefully monitoring of potential conflicts of interest. There will always be some legislators who are incorruptible, and there will always be some who will take opportunities for corruption whenever they believe that they can get away with it. But there is a third group–perhaps the largest group–who will only be corrupt if they can rationalize it morally to themselves. Everyone knows that taking a direct bribe is wrong. But allowing outside income streams creates grey areas. This in turn allows legislators to be corrupt without necessarily suffering the guilt they might feel by taking a direct bribe.
Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York said: “For many years, New Yorkers have asked the question: How could Speaker Silver, one of the most powerful men in all of New York, earn millions of dollars in outside income without deeply compromising his ability to honestly serve his constituents?” While we may now have an answer in Silver’s case, it’s time to eliminate that question for all legislators and sharply curtail allowable outside income, especially in the legal profession. (Perhaps we should allow some other streams of income; then New York Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk reported earning up to $5,000 from selling wool and yarn produced by the sheep she raises.)
It would, however, be grossly unfair to the legislature to merely strip them of most of their income without accompanying that move with a substantial increase in official legislative pay, another part of Governor Cuomo’s proposal. It is always difficult for a legislature to significantly raise its own pay without taking a political hit (it doesn’t play well in a sound bite to say “we need to pay ourselves more money to do the same work so we can quit out other jobs and not be as tempted to be corrupt”), but it might be the best option to clean up the notorious political cesspool that is the New York state legislature.