Former Rep. William J. Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, is off to prison. In August, a jury told him that bribery, racketeering and money laundering were not acceptable behaviors for anyone, let alone a member of Congress.
As a felon, Jefferson has had equally despicable company: Rep. Andrew J. Hinshaw, R-Calif. (accepting a bribe); Rep. Charles Diggs Jr., D-Mich. (payroll kickback scheme); Rep. Michael Myers, D-Pa. (accepting bribes from FBI agents impersonating Arab businessmen); Reps. John Murphy, D-N.Y., Frank Thompson, D-N.J., John Jenrette, D-S.C., and Raymond Lederer, D-Pa. (Arab businessmen bribery scandal, a.k.a. Abscam).
And Rep. Mario Biaggi, D-N.Y. (extorting money from a defense contractor); Rep. Mel Reynolds, D-Ill. (sex with underage campaign worker, bank fraud); Rep. Walter Tucker III, D-Calif. (accepting and demanding bribes); Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill. (felony mail fraud); Rep. James A. Trafficant, D-Ohio (bribery, conspiracy and racketeering); Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (accepting bribes from defense contractors) and Robert W. Ney, R-Ohio (Abramoff scandal). I’m sure readers can name more.
The collective misfortune of these men is that they got caught. Each undoubtedly said to himself, “I am invincible. I am a member of Congress.” They all assumed membership in the biggest-of-all-members-only clubs provided a get-out-of-jail-free card. But the real reason they believed they could get away with accepting bribes and committing extortion is that members of Congress have been doing it legally for years.
Jefferson may serve 13 years. Prosecutors say he probably earned less than $400,000 despite seeking millions in illegal bribes from “oil, sugar, communications and other businesses, often for projects in Africa,” said The New York Times. But he’s raked in about $6.45 million in campaign contributions since 1990, half from political action committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics database. More than $600,000 came from lawyers and law firms. (Wonder if the sharks will return his calls now.)
Prosecutors focused on the $90,000 federal agents found in Jefferson’s freezer. The public should have been more focused on Jefferson’s legal sources of campaign bucks, in the same way it should have paid less attention to the penis of that other two-faced Louisiana legislative poseur, Sen. David Vitter, and more attention to the sources of his campaign funding.
We the voters, the people who have watched health-care costs starkly climb ever higher, who see taxes rising exhorbitantly at all levels, who witness the quality of education for our children wither, who watch jobs vanish overseas and unemployment rise, and who are frightened that decades-old safety nets are tattered beyond repair, have become so inured to the corrosive role of money in politics that we forget that politicians are continously but legally bribed by monied interests. And it should stop.
Ask Glenn Greenwald of salon.com. In a video for Larry Lessig’s change-congress.com, he explains how Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., are threatening to filibuster any health-reform plan with a public option. Lieberman, says Greenswald, is “drowning in campaign contributions” from the health-care industry — more than $2.5 million — and his wife landed a cushy job in 2005 with PR flacksters Hill & Knowlton, representing pharma giant Glaxo. Several months later, Lieberman sought to steer incentives to Glaxo to develop vaccines.
“This is the kind of legalized corruption, legalized bribery, that runs the United States Senate,” says Greenwald. “Only in this case it is particularly sleazy and transparent because Lieberman is ready to gut the major initiative of the Democratic Party.”
Bayh’s wife, says Greenwald, “sits on the board of directors of WellPoint, one of the largest health-insurance companies in the nation. [The Bayhs] own, by their own disclosures, between $500,000 and a million dollars in WellPoint stock. … When Sen. Lieberman threatened to filibuster the public option … the value of the stock of the health-care industry skyrocketed … and personally benefited the finances of the Bayh family.”
Bayh’s wife was paid more than $2 million between 2005 and 2008. Bayh, in 2008, received $500,000 in campaign contributions from the health-care industry, says Greenwald.
“It’s really clear corruption,” says Greenwald.
Politicians defend their financial associations with large corporations (and unions) and wealthy individuals. They call it “campaign financing.” Sadly, we’re too accustomed to this shameless dance now, aren’t we?
A member of Congress, or someone who aspires to be one, gets on the phone and calls people who have lots of money. Often those people run very large enterprises, such as corporations (or unions). Those corporations, driven by the dictum “maximize shareholder income” (or, increasingly, “maximize CEO compensation”), would like members of Congress to make those tasks easier. Politicians say such donations only provide access to their ears, not their actions. The big corporate and PAC donors — or their hired lobbyists — say they’re only legitimately promoting the causes of their companies and clients.
Bullshit. It has been known for decades that lobbyists are often in the room, helping congressional staff write — or writing themselves — legislation. Earlier in this decade, tax-law experts from General Electric shaped an export tax reform bill that saved GE hundreds of millions of dollars.
Lobbyists’ dictation of politicians’ words and deeds has become even more blatant. New York Times reporter Robert Pear wrote Nov. 14 that lobbyists wrote and sought to have supportive statements about health-care reform placed by members into the Congressional Record prior to the Nov. 5 vote:
In the official record of the historic House debate on overhauling health care, the speeches of many lawmakers echo with similarities. Often, that was no accident. Statements by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies. … Genentech, a subsidiary of the Swiss drug giant Roche, estimates that 42 House members picked up some of its talking points — 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats, an unusual bipartisan coup for lobbyists. [emphasis added]
A lobbyist created the messages and supporting documents and e-mailed them to members. Lobbyists denied any malevolent intent. Said one, quoted anonymously by Pear: “This happens all the time. There was nothing nefarious about it.”
In the past five years, Genentech has spent nearly $10 million on lobbying expenses. In the past decade, Genentech has contributed more than $1 million to federal candidates. Pear reports Genentech’s PAC has made contributions to some of the members who used its talking points and that company officials had hosted fundraisers for some.
And, of course, there’s no quid pro quo, right? Wrote Pear: “Evan L. Morris, head of Genentech’s Washington office, said, ‘There was no connection between the contributions and the statements.'” [emphasis added]
Bullshit again. It is, as Greenwald says, legalized corruption. Imagine if I, as an individual voter living in a rural district, had asked my congressman to insert under his name words I wrote about health-care reform into the Congressional Record. He would say no. (Or rather, the staff member I’d get shunted off to would say no.) But when Genentech said jump, 42 members of Congress asked, “How high?”
Don’t kid us. It’s legalized corruption. Remarks members of Congress revise and extend into the Congressional Record, we now see, have been actually written by lobbyists. So what do the clowns we elect to office do for the $174,000 we pay them (and with very nice health-care bennies, too)?
A handful of Republican senators, led by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C, think they have an answer — a constitutional amendment to limit how long a person may serve in Congress. Apparently, senators would get 12 years, while representatives would get only six years. (Imagine that bill’s conference committee, eh?) On his Senate website, DeMint writes:
As long as members have the chance to spend their lives in Washington, their interests will always skew toward spending taxpayer dollars to buy off special interests, covering over corruption in the bureaucracy, fundraising, relationship building among lobbyists, and trading favors for pork, in short, amassing their own power.
Don’t be misled. After all, what’s to prevent the current system of lobbyists, legalized corruption, and greed from buying new sets of politicians every six or 12 years? Being new, they’ll come cheap, too.
Members of Congress need mountains of money to obtain and retain political power. They spend hours each day dialing donors and asking for, or demanding, campaign contributions. That’s the extortion part of the equation. Donors demand at least an ear and now, we see, actual words printed in the Congressional Record. That’s the corruption part. All that separates many uncharged and unjailed members of Congress from Jefferson and his imprisoned pals is an FBI wiretap.
Changing the politicians through term limits has little merit. Instead, get rid of the current system of campaign finance. If members of Congress were willing to bail out banks with hundreds of billions of dollars, demand that they allow the public to outbid special interests. Lobby members of Congress (yep, I said lobby) to drastically and dramatically overhaul public election financing. Demand that members of Congress place in the federal budget each year sufficient billions of dollars to pay for every federal and statewide election in the country. Give incumbents and challengers alike plenty of public money. But cut them off at the financial knees if they accept a single dime of corporate, union, or PAC money.
If our politicians continue to insist on being bought, let the public do the buying.