The corrupt American Congress: Extortionists? Or seduced by bribes? Now that’s something for the FBI to investigate


Now that the FBI has its gumshoes working on cleaning up college athletics, perhaps it could focus on examining corruption elsewhere — perhaps in the American Congress, as my S&R college Sam Smith suggests.

Congress has always been amenable to financial persuasion. That’s the nature of power. Those who have it want to keep it. Those with money want to harness power to achieves their own ends. Politicians and the wealthy have danced together for a few centuries. But now? It’s really nasty.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision unleashed a corrupt system of reward and punishment in Congress. That’s especially ironic, as Citizens United, a right-wing organization founded in 1988, bills itself as “dedicated to restoring our government to citizens’ control.” What that Court decision permitted is far from any conservative group’s goal to rein in the expanse of government.

The Court, in effect, equated money with speech. If the Constitution guarantees free speech, and money is speech, then money cannot be limited when it is acting as speech. The decision rearranged who could spend how much on which campaigns under what circumstances. That, combined with Internal Revenue Service rules regarding 501 (c) tax-exempt organizations, married permission to spend big money to vehicles that could spend it — and in many cases to do so anonymously.

That idiotic marriage provides megamillionaires and billionaires with a large truncheon with which to bludgeon members of Congress who don’t march to the correct ideological tune.

Consider a Senate with 51 members of the Pink party and 49 of the Beige party. The Pinks write a health-care bill depriving millions of Americans affordable insurance. (The Beiges oppose it and submit a bill providing universal, single-payer coverage, of course.) But two Pink senators are alarmed at the Pink bill and refuse to support it, dooming the Pink bill.

A single arrogant billionaire, pissed off at the two Pink recalcitrants, contributes $5 million to a 501(c) “social welfare” organization. That contribution stays anonymous. The money is used to create a super PAC, which runs ads in those Pink senators’ home states intent on changing the senators’ votes. Or worse, the super PAC runs “issue” ads during the next election cycle that attack the senators, benefitting whomever runs against them in the party’s primary. The senators cave; the Pink bill passes.

Or …

The two Pink senators have some discomfort with the Pink bill. So they quietly make it known among lobbyists (who probably wrote most of the bill) whose clients would benefit by its passage. Soon, a single billionaire gives many millions to a 501 (c) group, which creates a super PAC that runs ads in the senators’ home states supporting their reelection.

In Congress (and probably in state legislatures, too) it has become difficult to distinguish between the bribe seeker and the extortionist. Attempts to thoughtfully poke and probe at the merits of an idea have been supplanted by using only ideological rectitude as the only yardstick for that idea. Anonymous money is largely the means of conversation — not philosophy, morality, or even “facts.”

Big money begets loud (and usually anonymous) voices. Small money begets only whispers. It’s easy to see whose voices legislators hear most clearly.

That’s the principal consequence of the Citizens United decision. The conservatives’ goal of “citizens’ control” found itself distorted by the selfishness of moneyed interests who would not be content to merely participate in a fair, even-handed, public-square debate. They simply spent enough money to hijack the public square as well as the debate. Hey, after all, it’s only money, right?

Citizens’ United left the governed with a government that turned its citizens into supplicants for legislative crumbs, allowed billionaires to control the content of legislation, widened the inequities in power and wealth, and eventually led to a nation so divided each half refuses to admit the existence of the other side’s ideas.

Until Congress crafts fair, transparent, common-sense campaign finance legislation, those with the most money will speak anonymously and with far greater impact than the vast majority of Americans living paycheck to paycheck.

You may begin laughing now. Congress will never do that within my remaining lifetime.

Note: This post has been adapted from a passage in my forthcoming second novel, due out late this year or earlier next year.