Pay to Play in the USA

In a rare show of bipartisan outrage, this week both of our nation’s interchangeable political machines expressed their mutual displeasure at the recent FBI searches of a Democratic lawmaker’s Capitol Hill office. Representative William J. Jefferson, of Louisiana, was videotaped accepting a $100,000 bribe; most of the marked money turned up in his freezer; and the Feds subsequently raided his office, where they confiscated papers and personal computer files. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), announced that he would hold hearings on what he characterized as serious constitutional questions surrounding the search.

What raised the legislators’ collective ire was the Justice Department’s unprecedented violation of the sanctified breach between the executive and legislative branches of government. Apparently, one isn’t supposed to be poking its nose into the business of the other — except through the usual media channels. The practical reason for this is to protect lawmakers from harassment by policemen and investigators who might take umbrage at congressional speeches. The offended officeholders from both sides of the aisle say that the Constitution guarantees this protection under something called the “speech and debate” clause, which is intended to shield orators from retaliatory punishment.

Some members of Congress, however, think the legal wrangling looks bad. “For congressional leaders to make these self-serving arguments in the midst of serious scandals in Congress only further erodes the faith and confidence of the American people,” said Republican Senator David Vitter, also of Louisiana. The House is presently the target of more corruption investigations than at any time in the past 20 years.

Legally speaking, in 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that the “speech and debate” privilege applies to official duties, not criminal activities. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Burger said, “Taking a bribe is, obviously, no part of the legislative process or function.” To many Americans, it seems, on the contrary, that taking bribes is, in fact, essential to the process. We just don’t call them bribes. We call them “donations,” or “political contributions.”

Instead of arguing over the legal legitimacy of an office search, our indignant lawmakers ought to begin working on overhauling our broken patronage system, in which influence — and favorable results — are sold to the highest bidders. The radical solution would be to remove the time-wasting stigma attached to outright bribery and simply make paying for votes a transparent process. Rather than compel our nation’s corporations to dance gingerly through a minefield of regulations, which could explode in a bad PR moment without warning, maybe we ought to make the transactions between those who curry favor and those who wield legislative power an open market that will produce the best product at the best price.

The majority of politicians, even those who call for election reform, accept “contributions” that smell fishy at best. Rather than wasting time denying the impropriety of the money they accept in the form of “donations,” our Representatives and Senators, Governors and Councilmen, Assemblymen and Aldermen, would be free to sell their power to those who can pay the most. Practically speaking, this is already how the system works. Why not trim away the fake propriety and get down to the crucial business of trading power for money?

In American politics, one must pay to play. You want to have breakfast with the Mayor, buy a ticket to the $1,000-a-plate Democratic fundraiser. You want to get the state contract for widgets, make a healthy donation to his reelection campaign fund. You want to have the EPA look the other way while you befoul a river, make sure your check is made out to the national GOP war chest. You want help with securing Internet service provider contracts in Nigeria and Ghana, hand off a hundred grand to a Representative on the House Ways and Means committee.

But, until we deal with our hypocrisy and change the rules (again), you’d better make sure the FBI isn’t watching.

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