DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Before listening to this next story, I looked up the definition of the word corruption. One entry in the dictionary is dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power. So does that apply to presidential hopefuls who are courting millionaires and billionaires to fuel White House bids? Not corruption, according to campaign finance law, but efforts are underway on both the left and the right to redefine corruption in politics. Here's NPR's Peter Overby.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Republican presidential hopefuls seem bedazzled by the political network of brothers Charles and David Koch. They and other wealthy donors have pledged $900 million for this election cycle. One Koch-backed group recently had a conference call with candidate Marco Rubio. He was asked about a possible Koch endorsement and had this answer.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE CALL)
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: I have tremendous admiration for what the Koch family and their networking does, espousing the issues of limited government, free enterprise, liberty and opportunity for all. So I'd love to earn their support, of course.
OVERBY: It used to be over the line for a presidential candidate to make a play like that for an embrace by wealthy businessmen. Here's Warren Burger, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1976, on the standard for corruption.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WARREN BURGER: The reality and appearance of improper influence stemming from the dependence of candidates on large campaign contributions.
OVERBY: And now here's the current standard, as explained by Chief Justice John Roberts in a decision last year. It's much more limited.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN ROBERTS: A contribution to a particular candidate in exchange for his agreeing to do a particular act within his official duties.
OVERBY: In other words, a quid pro quo - the donor's money for the politician's official favor - a felony. These Supreme Court tapes, by the way, are from the Oyez Project at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. But if the court sees political corruption only as a felony, Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout says...
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: It's really the wrong way to look at things.
OVERBY: Teachout ran for governor of New York last year against incumbent Andrew Cuomo, but she also kept her day job. She says the founding fathers saw corruption differently, and Americans who aren't lawyers or politicians still see it that way.
TEACHOUT: Somebody is corrupt when they're in public office just for their own interests. And so this is why you see sort of broad belief that Congress is corrupt, even though there's very little evidence of quid pro quo.
OVERBY: Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School, has a similar analysis.
LAWRENCE LESSIG: We are talking about equal rights and citizens equal right to participate in the political process. And that's precisely the equality which has been destroyed by the way we've allowed campaigns to be funded.
OVERBY: Lessig and Teachout are both progressives, but conservatives and libertarians have other approaches to the question of political corruption. Richard Painter was ethics counsel to President George W. Bush. Now he's advocating something that conservatives usually try to kill - the public financing of campaigns.
RICHARD PAINTER: The taxpayer has to have - has a right to have - a meaningful voice in choosing the people who are going to spend the money.
OVERBY: To get that meaningful voice, Painter proposes $200 tax credits for people to use as political contributions. That way they'd have some clout well before the election.
PAINTER: It doesn't work to say that they get to choose on Election Day between two candidates who have been preselected by the big donors in the two political parties.
OVERBY: But at the libertarian Cato Institute, research fellow Trevor Burrus says Washington's problems won't be fixed with new campaign finance rules.
TREVOR BURRUS: I doubt that they'll have any effect on people's perception of corruption or the actual corruption in areas like lobbying.
OVERBY: Burrus says Congress needs to break its dependence on lobbyists by hiring more staff with more expertise and pay them better. Then, he says, lawmakers might not be so beholden to the bosses of those lobbyists - the corporations, unions and special interests that underwrite American politics. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.