Congressional Bribery?

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Jon Henke , one of the founding editors at The Next Right, wrote an interesting post comparing the bribes Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is accused of soliciting and the give-and-take “bribery” of Congress and its “cash constituents.” Jon writes, “Gov. Blagojevich merely did what our US Congress does as a matter of routine.” In one sense, I can see his point. While it doesn’t appear to be quite as direct is what Blagojevich is accused of, we often speculate that both Democrats and Republicans exchange campaign contributions for favors. But Blagojevich is accused of soliciting money for himself personally. That’s not quite what Congress does routinely, though there are certainly some examples of it.

There are lawmakers who have been accused (William Jefferson ) and convicted (Randy “Duke” Cunningham ) of similar types of bribery. And there was the 1980 Abscam where FBI agents dressed up as Middle Eastern sheiks willing to bribe politicians. The sting netted scores of pols, leading to19 people (including seven members of Congress) being convicted of bribery or related charges in the case. But does the horse trading Congress conducts, often unseemly as it is, reach that level of crude bribery? It might be close, but I don’t think it’s quite the same kettle of fish.

This is where more transparency is key to combating corruption. Openness is not only the cure for the sickness; it’s a prophylactic that åcould prevent the illness in the first place.

Take Jon’s hobbyhorse  —  earmarks. The practice of earmarks might not be a problem…or the problem just might be the lack of transparency. Suspicions of quid pro quos is all too strong where the process is opaque and there is huge potential for corruption. If the decisions were made in the light of day, I suspect there would be far less abuse.

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  • I think we’re mostly in agreement on this. Horse-trading isn’t quite the same as trading votes for personal gain. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily a categorical difference. Earmarks often benefit the politician personally, whether as a de facto campaign contribution or by giving more power and prestige to the politician. That’s categorically similar, if less overtly outrageous.

    In perhaps a somewhat different category, there is also the implicit “I’ll vote for your pelf if you’ll vote for mine” extortion that goes on in omnibus bills or in the decisions about what makes out of committee in the first place. While compromise and negotiation has a place, it’s hard to see how that kind of bartering results in good collective decision-making. It’s legislative collusion.

    As you say, more transparency could help resolve these problems, or at least result in better decision-making processes. For starters, why not create specific metrics for inclusion/exclusion and open up the committee processes to scrutiny?

    The ideal would be a process that required each Senator/Representative to vote (even just a simple box-check) on each individual earmark/line item, so that the decision-making process would be more fully democratic and rational. Absent that kind of decision-making transparency and personal accountability, we’ll continue to have omnibus bills that act as trojan horses for corruption and deal-making.