Maria, you asked "I'm curious of your thoughts on this since you are someone who is into sociology and politics alike. How can an idealistic newcomer to Washington (the ones who do have that genuine desire to make this a better place) survive..." and I will do my best to answer that, also with the issue of hyper-partisanship and with how the corruption begins in the first place.
Making policy for a nation of more than 300 million people, with trading and diplomatic relationships with every other nation on Earth, in a land that varies from swamp to desert, from mountaintops to beaches, from literally the wealthiest people on Earth to communities poorer and less healthy than anywhere else in the industrialized world, in a nation that has produced both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as NINE seasons of the series Family Matters - all with legal foundations written when no one on Earth had travelled faster than a horse could ride.... it is a challenge that requires a broad and brilliant skill set.
Someone right now is trying to "Monetize Facebook User Data" and possibly will make millions doing that - others will feel their images are being used without their consent or compensation - and the lawmakers who have to deal with this will be dealing with concepts that did not exist 10 years ago, let alone 20, or 50, or 100. People will have legal disagreements with everything from robotic drone aircraft, genetically modified organisms, financial derivatives traded by semi-autonomous algorithms, and other stuff that our imaginations haven't yet conceived of.
Like a TENTH season of Family Matters?
Adapting the legal code to address these new issues does, and will, require a specific amazing set of skills that understands these issues, understands the responsibilities and limits of our government, and can call together and respect the needs of vastly different groups of people. To willingly jump into such a challenging task is a higher calling that should direct some of the best and the brightest to where they are needed.
That's what is needed to serve. An ENTIRELY different skill set is required to get elected. Being the best at running a campaign is how we select our legislators and that skill set is, to say the least... different.
THIS SKILL SET
I could get more into detail about primaries, climbing party ranks, pandering to a base, running to the middle, staff, polling, incestuous relationships with media and so on, but I want to focus on something we overlook more.
Elected officials at the National Level, and even at the State level in many states, are in "Campaign Mode" every day. All the big money, moral compromises and dirty tricks we associate with campaigning during a short campaign season now go on from before day one until the day an elected official leaves office. This has a DEVASTATING effect on the ability of people to focus on things that will not bring in donations, support, or media attention... AND is has a devastating effect on what kind of people can stomach the job.
A young Senator named Barack Obama once commented something to the effect that he spent many hours a day with the kind of people who could write $50,000 campaign checks, and he wondered what impact it would have on his view of the world as he spent more time with THAT crowd than with the working-hard-but-getting-nowhere people he wanted to serve by becoming a Senator. A decade later we can add another "0" to the size of the checks he needs to get people to write every day to feed the campaign beast.
Recently, a guide for new members of Congress was leaked - and it had some recommendations on how members of Congress should schedule their day:
Just FYI "Call Time" means "Asking really rich people, corporations, and groups for money to fuel the campaign beast". Only "really rich" need to be called, because who else can write a $50,000 check? Nationally elected officials need to raise tens of thousands of dollars a week, sometimes every day, if they want to fund the next campaign. There are limits to how much individuals can contribute directly to a candidate... but... there are "bundlers" who make donations through dozens or hundreds of intermediaries, there are contributions to Political Parties who then dole that money back out to candidates, there are direct media buys, and there are "Political Action Committees" who exist mostly for the purpose of circumventing limits on political spending.
Four hours a day dealing with the wealthiest of the wealthy people and causes - nearly every day for years. That's just call time, there is an entire separate series of fundraising events for the evening too. $20,000 a plate dinners, speaking engagements, private cocktail parties and so on. The quest for money never ends.
Push comes to shove there are multiple legal ways to hand a lawmaker an entire suitcase full of money (checks and electronic transfers weigh less, though). It is entirely legal to then pay your son/spouse/best friend a six or seven figure salary as a "Campaign Consultant". It is legal to use campaign funds to fly your family to Hawaii or on a limo service or even on a private jet or other even less justifiable things. It has been done, it is being done right now. It has been horrible for years, the "Citizens United" decision by the Supreme Court has turned the money hose up another notch.
We have allowed fully legalized bribery of our leaders. Only leaders who have access to millions upon millions of dollars will continue to serve in office. Bribes are not only legal, they are MANDATORY.
Your Benjamins stack must be this high to ride this ride
A couple of years ago I heard Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver speak at the James Kirkpatrick dinner in Johnson County, Missouri. He was not in the best of moods and when addressing why our Democracy had become so uncivil his response was something to the effect of "because that's what gets money". He mentioned how the Representative who yelled "You Lie!" at the 2009 State of the Union (Which is, I assure you, not the standard protocol at such an event) was NOT punished for his disrespect of the President, the Institution of the Presidency, and our rules of Decorum, but instead he did NOT lose a single place on a single committee, and - in fact - the weeks after his outburst he actually raised more money than any other member of Congress. He was REWARDED for his disreputable behavior. Should we be surprised when others try to get the spotlight on them for similar stunts? We allow our lawmakers to be bribed not only for corruption - but also they get bribed for childish stunts.
That is ONE type of legalized bribery - there are many others that we witness every day. For another example, it's perfectly legal to pay a lawmaker's spouse a salary in the hundreds of thousands or millions as a lobbyist or consultant for a group or company that has a vested interest in the laws the legislator makes. Sen. Evan Bayh's wife was paid two million dollars as an insurance company lobbyist as the Senator happened to advocate the positions she was paid to represent. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is married to a woman who used to get paid an enormous salary from The Heritage Foundation (which has a legal opinion on every case that comes before the court) and now owns her very own Lobbying/Consulting corporation which takes in millions from groups who have a vested interest in the decisions the court makes. Sen. Ted Cruz, one of the politicians deeply involved in the shut down has some inside knowledge of exactly when it will end and when markets will rebound - knowing that would make the right traders VERY rich. He happens to be married to a trader for Goldman Sachs
That covers "Bribery by Spouse". I might flesh out more types of legal bribery later, but the other biggies are "Revolving Door" (Getting hired to a multi-million gig right after you leave office, or leaving a gig like that right before you leave office - from a group who clearly benefited from your actions in office) Speaking/Consulting gigs (Getting paid huge sums to give a speech or consult for a few hours - because you are of course a REALLY awesome speaker and not at all because the group paying you to speak benefited from your actions in office) Board Memberships (Get paid ridiculously for a few hours of work a year for a corporation who really benefited from your actions in office) and rewards from media/publishers - who can promote your book or show (Many political "best sellers" were actually sales where thousands upon thousands of copies were bought by a single individual, corporation, or group). Fox News pays many former lawmakers as "Contributors". Think tanks and advocacy groups often become the road to millions for former lawmakers whose actions in office supported their positions (Former Rep. Dick Armey is the president of "FreedomWorks" which is behind about half of the Tea Party stuff out there).
How big of a deal is this "other stuff"? Let's look at two of the players during the last shut down. Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton. Newt Gingrich came to Washington as History Professor worth a few thousand dollars - and left his position as Speaker of the House a millionaire many times over. He had many, many paid speeches and consultancies over the years but the one that stands out as the most egracious is his being paid 1.6 Million and 1.8 Million for acting as a "Historian". Former President William Jefferson Clinton came to Washington after being the Governor of Arkansas and by no means a rich man. In 2010 he could afford to pay for his daughter's estimated three million dollar wedding.
These were men of no particular wealth or business acumen before they came to office. They now have riches beyond what all but a tiny fraction of us could ever dream of.
I am using this picture again because I was too lazy to google Scrooge McDuck's Vault
I've been writing a long time but bear with me.
In 1960, Harry Truman wrote about being offered many well-paying corporate positions as a spokesperson, consultant, board member, and so on. He said "I turned down all of those offers. I knew that they were not interested in hiring Harry Truman, the person, but what they wanted to hire was the former President of the United States. I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and the dignity of the office of the Presidency."
Harry Truman lived a respectable, middle class life after he left office, with ups and downs, and was grateful to have the opportunity to serve his Country. President Eisenhower followed suit - not leaving the office in abject poverty - but not becoming ridiculously rich either.
In contrast Ronald Reagan was paid 2 Million dollars by a Japanese MegaCorporation to give two speeches in Japan VERY shortly after leaving office and after 8 years of supporting trade policies that made tremendous amounts of money for Japanese MegaCorporations. George W Bush reportedly took in 15 Million Dollars in speaking fees after leaving office (again, from groups that just happened to support his actions as President). The Clintons are supposedly worth over one hundred million dollars at this point.
I have a feeling that once you enter the world of money at that level, it is addictive and you will do whatever you have to do to keep that "high". Maybe Truman and Eisenhower knew this.
This metaphor is SUBTLE
The biggest corrupting factor in our system is this big money. It fuels empty attention stunts, it corrupts our leaders, our lawmakers, our regulators (I could do a whole thing on agency heads who made ridiculous salaries from the companies they were supposed to regulate the day they left office), our policies, our journalism and even the conceptualization of what politics is in our minds.
Army NCOs are expected, nay DEMANDED, to avoid even "The Appearance of a Conflict of Interest" As they should. Rules exist to prohibit bribery in its many forms, and we expect even our poorly-paid Corporals to follow these rules.
We can never reasonably expect professionalism and dedication to duty from our highest lawmakers when they are held to a lower standard than our E-4s. If, the day after your tour of duty ended, it were perfectly legal to accept a million dollars to "give a speech" to a group of Iraqi Republican Guard who happened to escape when the absent-minded Corporal was on duty... there would be way more escapes out there. If it were permissible and common for a First Sergeant to get donations many times greater than the value of his salary if he yelled "Bullshit!" while a General Officer was giving a brief... then we could not possible sustain the kind of respect and order we have come to expect from our military.
Until we enact and enforce a comprehensive set of rules (like guidelines for NCOs) to prevent legal bribes for corrupt and childish behavior - we should expect more of it. It pays well.
If you had put in years of quiet service as a legislator, and before you left office you had the wink-wink-nod-nod offer to change a single vote or to change a few lines of language in a bill you were about to introduce - in exchange for financial security for you and your family for the rest of your life, wouldn't it be tempting? What about if ALL your peers were doing the same thing and NONE of them were being punished or even shamed for doing so?
Short Version: How are good people corrupted? They are paid millions to become corrupt. It is legal.
God Bless America!