Bribery Is An American Tradition

Thanks to the slashing, theatrical tactics of Michael Avenatti, we spent much of last week learning how corporate America bribes public officials. It was revealed that AT&T and Novartis paid Trump lawyer Michael Cohen for “insights” into the Trump administration. Cohen’s take from a variety of companies ran into the seven figures.

Our government is for sale, but don’t blame Donald Trump. His clumsy cast of cartoon Mafiosi have merely taken the finesse out of the game, placing the oily guts of the machine out in the daylight.

Pay for play politics is not new. It is not a product of Citizens United or McDonnell. Bribery is deeply engrained in our values and protected in law. Some states, like Texas, have no enforceable bribery laws. Federal statutes create such a high standard, with so many exceptions, that even the rare, successful prosecution is usually overturned on appeal.

Spiro Agnew spent his career shaking down government contractors for cash. He continued the practice during his time as Nixon’s Vice President. When the payments were revealed he was forced to resign, but his only penalty was to pay back-taxes on a small portion of the income. Money for that payment came from Frank Sinatra.

The only way to go to jail for bribery is to be sloppy, unpopular, or of course – black. Louisiana Congressman, William Jefferson, carries the distinction of serving the longest sentence in our history for bribery. His conviction carried an enhancement for criming while black, resulting in a whopping 13-year sentence. Jefferson served five years before almost all of the charges against him were overturned. Coincidently, the two longest sentences ever handed down for bribery just happen to have been laid on black elected officials, Jefferson and Philadelphia’s Chaka Fattah. Strange.

Former Texas Governor and current Energy Secretary, Rick Perry has spent his entire adult life in poorly paid public service. Naturally, he’s a millionaire. Perry plays a starring role in one of our country’s most remarkable bribery incidents, and no, it’s not the one that earned him an indictment.

Back in the 90’s, Texas homebuilding tycoon, Bob Perry (no relation), was concerned about the growth of municipal housing codes and his losses from lawsuits over shoddy construction. So he bought a new state agency that would pre-empt municipal codes and block homeowner lawsuits. He even got his lawyer appointed to the agency board in 2003. The effort is estimated to have cost him around $10 million which he spread liberally around both parties in the legislature and the Governor’s office. Under public protest, the agency was disbanded a few years later, but there were no investigations or prosecutions.

Sweet old Bob Dole was the king of the dole. Like Perry, public service made Dole a millionaire. He was owned by the tobacco industry, but they lent him out for other projects. His ’88 campaign earned a then-record fine for its blatant irregularities. A scandal over payments by the Gulf Oil Company back in the 70’s was one his strangest scams in a career filled with, let’s just say, odd and irregular payments.

Your Congressman does not represent you. If your Congressman imagines that she represents you, she will quickly cease to be your Congressman. This is as true of the finest people we send to Washington as it is of the worst. The noblest, most principled, and most effective of our representatives are the ones who ride a knife edge, finding small ways around the legislative margins to protect your interests while pacifying the people who underwrite the system and fund their campaigns.

The impact of institutionalized bribery is perhaps most apparent in the details of the Affordable Care Act. Why didn’t the ACA include a public option? Why isn’t the program universal? Why is Medicare blocked by law from using its remarkable negotiating leverage to drive down prices for prescription drugs? Lots of well-intentioned elected officials went to Washington in 2008 and discovered the stark limits of their power. Corporations and wealthy individuals spent just enough money on bribes to divert just enough public political will to protect their most vital interests at a critical moment.

Of course, buying political outcomes is more complicated than it sounds. Your legislature is a marketplace with many competing buyers. Voters complicate this picture. Money spent on bribes is leverage against public will. The deeper and more focused the public interest, the more it costs to move unpopular policies into law. An organized and engaged public can easily drive the price of corruption too high even for billionaires. Nothing in our system is as powerful as motivated voters. Don’t worry, the wealthy have ways to keep voters disorganized and confused.

Money spent to buy political outcomes isn’t just spent on bribes. Elected officials receiving the money need air cover. Cash flows into disinformation campaigns that blunt public will. The racist website, Brietbart is a project of the Mercer family. But for the Mercers, you never would have heard of Steve Bannon. If you’ve heard of Ben Shapiro or the fake news site Daily Wire, you can thank the freaky Texas billionaires, the Wilks Brothers.

Daily Signal is underwritten by the Heritage Foundation, which is a project of several billionaires including the Scaifes and the Kochs. Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller was backed by born-again millionaire Foster Friess. Founders of The Federalist have managed to keep their funding sources secret. The “grassroots” conservative media site, RedState, is a project of the Salem Media Group, a Christian media behemoth that trades on NASDAQ. And of course, the mother of all fake news projects, Fox News, was built by Nixon aide Roger Ailes and funded by Rupert Murdoch.

Beyond just news, the Koch brothers have bought an entire complex of phony think tanks. They’ve also bought university programs and professors. They practically own George Mason University outright. If information is power, disinformation is Kryptonite.

Why do hacks like Ben Shapiro and Tomi Lahren appear all over your drunk uncle’s Facebook feed while few people have heard of David Brin, Doug Mataconis or Doug Muder? If your writing on politics and economics is insightful, you might build a modest following. If your writing helps wealthy people cover their bribery, you’ve stumbled onto a golden business model.

Some have fought this monster. Sally Yates built a career battling corrupt public officials and it nearly cost her a job at the Justice Department. Long before anyone could imagine a Trump administration, Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis tried to scuttle Yates’ 2009 appointment as a federal prosecutor. Yates had ruined the career of a corrupt Atlanta mayor friendly to Lewis. The pay-for-play monster has no concern for no party labels.

Obama Administration officials launched a serious campaign against corruption. Their efforts contributed to prosecutions against Sheldon Silver and Seth Williams. As a result, Yates and Preet Bharara have been fired. Others will likely follow. The Silver prosecution is already unraveling. The Obama Era effort to constrain bribery is deader than Donald Trump’s soul.

In theory, voters could put a stop to pay for play politics anytime we want. Citizens United does nothing to stop state or federal government from adopting aggressive disclosure laws for political donations. We could pass real, enforceable bribery laws. We could strip the tax deduction for dark money political donations. We could implement financial disclosure rules for elected and appointed officials.

We haven’t stopped this monster because the public doesn’t care. Money-driven politics is so engrained our political culture that it doesn’t inspire much concern. Bribery is an American tradition, one we will almost certainly pass on to the next generation.

35 Comments

    1. 1. Basic jobs don’t help the disabled
      Nobody claims that disability payments will go away.

      2. Basic jobs don’t help caretakers
      Being a caretaker is a job.

      3. Basic jobs don’t help parents
      If you’re arguing this you’re arguing that jobs don’t help parents.

      4. Jobs are actually a big cause of poverty
      See #3.

      5. Basic jobs may not pay for themselves by doing useful work
      I can think of a lot of useful things that aren’t being done. JG will pay to for them to be done.

      6. Private industry deals with bad workers by firing them; nobody has a good plan for how basic jobs would replace this
      Yes they do.

      7. Private employees deal with bad workplaces by quitting them; nobody has a good plan for how basic jobs would replace this
      Yes they do.

      8. Basic income could fix private industry; basic jobs could destroy it
      I can think of many useful things to do that private industry hasn’t figured out how to make a profit from, therefore they don’t do it.

      9. Basic income supports personal development; basic jobs prevent it
      This is just BS. Name one person who hasn’t learned more from their job than from a PhD program.

      10. Basic income puts everyone on the same side; basic jobs preserve the poor-vs-the-rest-of-us dichotomy
      Basic jobs are obviously the first step up the ladder.

      11. Work sucks
      Life sucks sometimes. Go kill yourself.

  1. I have come to realize that democracy is a failure. The average citizen is either too stupid to recognize what happens on a daily basis, simply too apathetic to care, or openly believes in an authoritarian system that will support whatever bias they have.

    Also, a properly functioning democracy and unfettered capitalism are mutually exclusive. Big money runs the world, and the rich’s power increases more each day. Representation of the people, by the people, runs counter to the plans of the powerful, therefore it is destroyed.

    Democracy worldwide has been in retreat for a number of years now, and when the U.S. falls into open authoritarianism (which is essentially happening today), that will likely be the death knell for democracy. Germany, U,K., and Canada will likely be the last holdouts though based on what I am reading about Ontario’s own version of the puppet tyrant in their current election cycle, Canada is slipping fast.

    Guess it is time to accept the failure of mankind, and just try to ride it out for the rest of my life. Given that I am white, middle-aged, and with two degrees, I am one of the chosen, so what comes in the future will not affect me, other that of course, the effects of global warming. But for most of the planet, worse misery awaits.

    1. Dins – we are all concerned, but we do have choices, mostly by birth and education. We also have the opportunity and responsibility to work like hell to change the forces that are undermining democracy. It is not going to be easy, but it is not impossible. I believe that and am doing what I can to make a difference in this difficult period.

    2. Dins, a contrary view, from a possibly unexpected source:

      I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure… The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters. (C. S. Lewis)

      https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/11/29/c-s-lewis-equality-democracy/?utm_source=pocket&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=pockethits

      1. I don’t know if you’ve read, “How Democracy Ends,” by David Runciman, but it is a compelling piece – and, per this review, by Andrew Rawnsley, maybe too pessimistic. The reviewer suggests America is likely in a “mid-life crisis, but Democracy is stronger (while admittedly imperfect) than its foes.

        “For all its manifest and manifold imperfections, democracy has a better record than any rival form of government at sustaining free, innovative, peaceful and prosperous societies. Yes, democracy is often messy, clumsy and ineffectual. Yes, voters sometimes empower ghastly rulers. Yes, democracy is looking tired at this moment in its history. But almost despite himself, and without saying it this explicitly, Runciman seems to accept that there is something special about democracy. One of its great merits is the capacity for self-questioning and self-correction, which is lacking in other systems of government.”

        In the midst of so many outrageous, frightening, embarassing, dispiriting times, it is good to balance our current chaotic immersion with historical perspective. That doesn’t mean for one minute that we “relax” nor that we “accept as normal” the politics we are living within, but it does mean that we don’t.give.up, and we fight for change.

        https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/20/how-democracy-ends-david-runciman-review-trump?

  2. PA’s primaries produced an interesting win: John Fetterman, a progressive endorsed by Bernie, won a hotly contested primary to be the Dem’s nominee for Lt. governor.

    https://www.vox.com/2018/5/16/17360916/john-fetterman-pennsylvania-lieutenant-governor-primary

    Harvard educated former insurance salesman who went back to a dying rural town to become mayor, running on a plank that the Democrats have to return to their working-class and small town roots…

      1. That logic has worked well for me in many elections. Good for you, Unarmed. As for the potential for conflict between the progressive and traditional moderate Dems, bring it on….Democrats need to have this debate to find out what their base will support. A little interest and excitement goes a long way to getting out the vote!

    1. Creigh and Ryan – You know I’m on board with these sentiments! Women work hard and they are more predisposed to compromise than men – which is not only sorely lacking at present, it’s how democracy is designed to work. Now, they are plain fed up with the status quo which may provide the fire they will need to win some elections. Undoubtedly, many women are motivated by honest indignation, which I believe is a better reason to seek office than paving a path to a political career.

      In the US House – 20% are female; in the Senate – 23% are female. In America, 51% are female. Those numbers need to be in better alignment – not only at the federal level, but in state and local government as well.

      1. Mary
        But predisposition to compromise is not something that the more ideological sectors of parties want in their own side. Everybody wants compromise-inclined opponents and hardliner allies. I don’t think anyone here significantly deviates from the belief that (office holding) Republicans are evil; compromise will lose its appeal to you all when you have to reckon with what it means.
        By the way what is your source? I recall reading some analysis like that in NYT but I thought it said women tended to be on the left of both parties, so R women were more disposed to compromise but D women less so.
        I gather that this thread was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but just sayin, we had a primary between a compromise-oriented woman and a hardliner man in 2016.

        Also, unarmed, are you frikkin serious about just voting based on sex instead of leaving it blank?

      2. Joncr – Yep. Of course it was for committee persons, not government offices. But yes, I did. Actually, I don’t think it worse than voting to send a message or declining to vote because of not liking either candidate in a general. Pick a reason or not, I think women in general will help save us from testosterone inflamed assholes. Umm, that is not the word picture that I was going for but, what the hell.

      3. JonCr – Wiki was my source if you are referring to composition in each House of Congress.
        (House) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_the_United_States_House_of_Representatives (Senate) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_the_United_States_Senate

        If you are referring to compromise – I’ve read many articles and seen the efforts of Republican and Democratic women in Congress work together. There are hard cases (Marsha Blackburn comes to mind immediately) but generally, women are more collegial. As for whether this is true more so of Republican or Dem women, that probably depends upon the issue. Here’s the Atlantic’s perspective on this topic. And, I am dead serious about this…no tongue- in-cheek, and, yes, if I don’t know the candidates well, I will give women my vote.

        https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/would-electing-more-women-fix-congress/495989/

      4. The Atlantic article agrees with what I remember from NYT:
        “Female Republicans’ policy positions are closer to those of the median voter, and they are more likely to sponsor bills that attract bipartisan support; by contrast, female Democrats’ positions are more distant from the median voter. On the other hand, we find no support for the hypothesis that women are inherently more willing to compromise, as that would imply that women in both parties would attract more bipartisan support, in contrast to what we observe in the data.”
        Also: ‘“I think there is sometimes the claim going around that having more women would promote diversity and maybe also improve team outcomes, because women are better able to build bridges,” said M. Daniele Paserman, an economics professor at Boston University and one of the authors of the study. “Within this sample, there’s really not that much showing clear differences between women and men. That could give some pause to the thought that increasing the number of women will have all these great improvements.”’
        Clearly there are a lot of dimensions here, but we just be seeing so-called “benevolent sexism” (roughly that it’s okay to talk about sex differences when and only when we are painting women in a positive light), and maybe some good ole partisan double standards to boot.

      5. Jon, I read the article before posting it. I also perused the study referenced in the article (Olivetti/Passerman, http://www.nber.org/papers/w22488.pdf), as well as a review of the study (https://medium.com/boston-university-pr/do-female-politicians-cooperate-better-than-men-b619f983e8b7). I wish the study had included more than legislative bi-partisanship to support its conclusion, but it was interesting, which Is why I linked it.

        The conclusion asserts: “Overall, our results suggest that differences in cooperative behaviors by gender are perhaps not as large as expected. Gender differences in cooperation arise when women strategically compromise to achieve a common goal, rather than because women are intrinsically more cooperative. It appears therefore that an increase in female representation is unlikely to lead to a substantial increase in cooperation in Congress.”

        I agree with most within the first two sentences in the conclusion but do not feel the authors proved their final assertion that increased female representation would not substantially increase cooperation in Congress. The extrapolation is simply too far a reach, in my opinion. That may be my “partisan bias” showing but I submit that there simply aren’t enough women in Congress to draw that conclusion, the legislative process and leadership are principally controlled by men, and the study’s premise was too limited by only looking at legislative co-sponsorship for proof. It is certainly one measure of consideration but insufficient validation of their conclusion, in my opinion. I’m not sure what “benevolent sexism” is but as a female, it sounds like something that would make me smile.

        Given the fact that women represent a little over 20% of the entire Congress, if they didn’t employ the skills of collaboration and cooperation, they would accomplish little for their constituents, many of whom are women whose needs and interests are intrinsically linked with gender, family, children, home and workplace. It makes total sense that women reach across the aisle when they can on issues that impact these areas because they understand them and know their importance. I believe women are doing so and are able to bridge partisan divides over commonality of concerns. As for whether they are more inclined and successful in their efforts to cooperate than men are in bi-partisanship and cooperation purely on legislation, looking at co-sponsorship of legislation as a sole criteria is too narrow a disclaimer.

        I want a more gender-balanced, diverse Congress that more closely correllates with America’s general population. That doesn’t have anything to do with sexism or partisanship; rather, it would be more fair and representative of the nation. As more women (from both parties) are running for office and hopefully elected, we will have a better opportunity to assess what they bring to governance. I support election of more Democratic candidates, more women and greater diversity within Congress to improve the balance and quality of bi-partisan discussion and decision-making. We’ve watched decades of status quo. Let’s give women a chance.

  3. Chris, you might enjoy this insider account of how U.S. Attorney Pat Fitzgerald (the Illinois district, and the one who convicted Scooter Libby) got nominated:

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-05-24/news/ct-met-kass-0524-20120524_1_pat-fitzgerald-illinois-politicians-patrick-fitzgerald

    Quick summary: it’s the privilege of the senior senator from the President’s party to nominate the U.S. Attorney for his state. Unsurprisingly, this means most U.S. Attorneys are selected for their ability to look the other way WRT political corruption, knowing to go after gangbangers, drugs, maybe the odd business that was too cheap to cultivate ties with politicians, and other politically safe targets.

    Sen. Peter Fitzgerald was a 1-term Republican Senator from IL (prior to Obama) who was so unloved by the state’s Republican party that they declined to nominate him for a second term. As a final FU to his party, he decided to find a real prosecutor who would go after corrupt politicians in both parties. So he selected Pat Fitzgerald (no relation), a New Yorker with no ties to the Chicago or IL machines (contrary to Chris’s assertions both Dems and Repubs run powerful machines in Illinois). Pres. Bush stuck to tradition, despite desperate maneuvering from IL republicans including Speaker Dennis Hastert to try to derail the nomination.

    Pat Fitzgerald got in and started cleaning house. Two successive governors in jail (one R, one D), numerous state and local officials, plus Scooter Libby when he was named special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame case. He was methodical, relentless, and completely nonpartisan. The man knew how to do his job, and politicians in IL were terrified of coming under his gaze. Plenty resigned or didn’t run for re-election if they knew Fitzgerald was building a case against him (it’s rumored that’s one of the reason’s Mayor Daley declined to run for re-election).

    He was so popular in Illinois that the Chicago Tribune told both Obama and McCain in 2008, that anyone who wanted to get the paper’s endorsement had to publicly state that they would keep Fitzgerald on as U.S. attorney (it’s customary, especially when the Presidency changes parties, for all the US attorneys to eventually resign so as to allow the new President to appoint his own people; a nice, cozy arrangement, eh?). Both agreed, and Obama, after winning, kept his word. I’m sure it was easy for him since he never spent enough time in IL politics to accumulate much dirt (4 years as state senator).

    I’ve always felt Illinois got a bum rap about being so corrupt. It’s not any more corrupt than any other state, and quite a bit cleaner than plenty of states. The only difference is we had a star US attorney who was actually appointed to clean house. If only such people were appointed everywhere, we’d soon fill the prisons with politicians, and maybe finally start building a better government. While plenty of people like Pat Fitzgerald exist, our nominating process for US attorneys is so corrupt (by intentional design), that getting people like that (or Preet Bharara) into office is more of a quirk or error, rather than the intended outcome.

  4. Oh man, what a great topic 🙂 The problem with our system isn’t that our politicians are for sale. It’s that the price is so low.

    Dollar-for-dollar, there is no single investment a company can make, be it in R&D, worker training, capital goods, whatever, with a better return than buying govt influence. It’s not even close. While a good capital investment may return 10-20% per year, buying govt influence can easily return 10-20X (i.e. not %) per contribution. Look at it this way: in the 2016 elections, Trump and Hillary each spent about $1 bil on their campaigns. Add in another $1 bil for each party’s primaries, and you have $4 bil in total spending for the Presidency. Let’s say another $4 bil gets spent on Congressional races. And let’s add another $2 bil in case I get the figures low.

    That means that for $10 bil, you can control the *entire* Federal government, a body that controls $4 tril per year in direct federal outlays, not to mention writes the rules and regulations on a $19 tril economy. And you control it for 4 years. Is it any wonder that the return on investment on govt lobbying routinely exceeds the most wildly successful VC-funded unicorn out there?

    My personal solution to this isn’t to try to keep the money out. As long as that return exists, money will find a way to seep in. The solution is to reduce the returns, by flooding the system with public money. There are approximately 250 mil voting age citizens in our country. Imagine if each one is given $40/yr, which they can allocate to whichever political candidates they want (or they can give some of it to interest groups e.g. the Sierra Club, the NRA, etc. who would act like mutual funds, pooling the money and spending on politicians that are friendly to their causes). Any money not designated is given away proportionately (e.g. if the Sierra Club got 1% of all designated donations, they’ll get 1% of the undesignated money too).

    Anyone is welcome to donate as much as they want above and beyond this amount. However, this instantly floods the political system with $10bil/yr, reducing the return on investment by 4x (since elections happen every 4 years). While this would cost the Feds $10bil, I suspect the amount saved due to decreased corruption / bribery would be more than that. Plus it might bring in better quality of candidates, because having a truly people-focused campaign can finally raise as much cash (perhaps more) as shilling for corporate money.

    The bottomline is I think we’ve approached campaign finance reform in an ass-backward way. Restricting funding just makes whatever funding that’s remaining even more valuable, with far better returns. If the answer to bad speech is to drown it out with good speech, why can’t the same principle apply to campaign financing?

  5. > We haven’t stopped this monster because the public doesn’t care.

    I think this is the wrong understanding of the situation. Trump voters I know when told about his bankruptcies involving the Taj Mahal thought that was a good thing because ‘good businessmen go bankrupt all the time’. It is the warped opinion that because they see bankruptcies listed in the business section, good businesses go bankrupt all the time and, therefore, if a business hasn’t gone bankrupt, it must be some kind of failure. The idea that good businesses led by good business people don’t make the bankruptcy section is foreign to them.

    This thought pattern can be overlaid on to politics. In the minds of people, politicians are all corrupt. A good politician is a corrupt politician. If a politician isn’t corrupt, then they must be some kind of failure. The idea we should elect more ‘Honest Abes’ and less ‘Tricky Dicks’ or ‘Slick Willies’ is foreign to them. By their logic, Trump is the perfect politician because he strips the lies and edifice off what other corrupt politicians tell them.

  6. “In theory, voters could put a stop to pay for play politics anytime we want.”

    The ultimate irony is that this administration’s brazen, public, and incompetent schemes on the matter may create a backlash that does far more to further this goal than Obama’s relatively honest and direct approach. The president, of course, didn’t say “how” he’d drain the swamp…

    1. Oh dear…

      Bart, my new compatriot here in the comments section, there’s something you need to know. Chris has the Clinton’s transgressions’ memorized so thoroughly he could probably roll them off of the top of his head in such a way that it would make your jaw drop. Once he’s laid them out once, you understand why he doesn’t go to the hassle of doing it again.

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