It sometimes seems as if we think of graft and corruption as the stuff of the robber barons and Tammany Hall that the progressive era fought, that Mr. Smith went to Washington to oppose or that we bemoan in sleazy foreign governments. Of course, that’s nonsense. We are living in the middle of a gaudy golden age of quid pro quo and “help yourself” politics that is hard to overlook.
Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell is heading for the slammer, the latest poster boy for crooks in office. He traded influence for baubles from a dietary supplement huckster. It’s hard not to think of “A Man for all Seasons.” Richard Rich, an aspiring courtier has betrayed Sir Thomas More, lied under oath, sacrificed honor and damned his immortal soul for a government post in the hinterlands. When More learns of it, he looks at Rich in contempt and says — “For Wales?” Our version is, “For a ride in a vitamin salesman’s cool car?”
In my earlier years a vice president lost his job and reputation over tax evasion and $100,000 in bribes from Maryland wheeler dealers. Spiro, we hardly knew ye. Almost every other Illinois governor seems to be headed to lock up and Rhode Island also boasts more than its shares. The bullying New York congressman Michael Grimm who once threatened to throw a reporter off a balcony, on camera, is heading up the river for $900,000 in tax evasion, hiring illegal immigrants, perjury, wire fraud. He also raised campaign funds illegally, but who doesn’t?
In fact, to be caught in such acts doesn’t indicate a particularly unusual level of corruption, rather an extraordinary lack of criminal competence. Congress and the courts have made it so easy for public servants to enrich themselves corruptly without actually violating a statute that stepping over the line looks like criminal stupidity.
For example, insider trading laws do not apply to members of Congress. They have advance inside knowledge of changes to tax and regulatory laws, not to mention the letting of government contracts. These affect almost every publicly traded company in the country — road builders, oil drillers, polluters of all sorts, banks, you name it. To not make a buck buying or selling before congressional actions become known would require either very slow reflexes or uncommon honesty.
Very few members of Congress display either. Men of modest means regularly assume office, stay for decades thanks to gerrymandered districts, earn a pleasant but hardly munificent salary and emerge multimillionaires. How? How else. And this doesn’t begin to touch that great source of enrichment — brides in all but name. Foreign junkets, speaking fees, rides on the company jet. All provided by amiable corporate chieftains who are not buying access or assuring rigged votes. No, no. They re patriots.
We recently learned that Governor Chris Christie had flapped off to London to burnish his non-existent foreign policy credentials. On an earlier trip to Israel, he was not forced to squeeze his bulk into the middle seat in coach like an honest working man. He traveled in a private jet furnished by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson who asks nothing of the politicians he lavishes with emoluments. Except for two small things — to speak, vote and govern as if they worked for the citizens of Israel rather than the United States and to keep the government’s hands off the gaming industry. Given it’s presence in New Jersey, this looks a tad like a conflict of interest for the governor of the state.
On that same trip, the King of Jordan provided the governor with lodging in a luxury hotel worth $30,000. So obviously Christie is ready for Washington, having learned to extort perks from “friends” domestic and foreign
This time, he stayed in a more modest $600 a night London digs, not an easy trick for a guy on a government salary. But it didn’t cost him a dime. His travel to the Middle East cost the taxpayers of New Jersey $40,000. It is estimated they will be on the hook for a like amount this time.
What Christie has failed to learn from Washington pros is how to keep the slurping at the trough under the radar. According to the New York Times, Christie regards such subsidies as just his due. “I relish these experiences and exposures, especially for my kids,” Christie said. “I try to squeeze all the juice out of the orange that I can.” Do the taxpayers relish being the squoozen orange?
Since the Citizens United case opened the flood gates to campaign giving, more and more money has been flooding into campaign coffers and campaigners pockets. Another little perk resides in the fact that when campaigns fold and the candidate drops out, he or she is under no obligation to return he unspent millions. That may account for the growing number of candidates for high office.
The next presidential race may produce as much as $4 billion in contributions to a dozen or more candidates. Only one will get the office, but all can take home a consolation prize. Even in humdrum state races hundreds of millions are raised and spent. In last November’s Tom Tillis–Kay Hagan Senate contest over $70 million was spent on advertising alone. This money isn’t coughed up because the donors are public spirited or charitable, but because they are pursuing private self-interest and practicing the kind of charity that begins at home.
So, when laws or regulations are being written or contracts are being let, who’s in the room? Who’s doing the drafting of the actual language? Not your elected representative looking out for your interest. No, the lawyers and lobbyists for the donor class, for big energy, pharma, finance. The pols are at the phones raising more funds, on foreign junkets or opining on talk shows.
This colossal hijacking of democracy makes the grimy little corruption of the past look like a children’s game. Today’s landscape is a kind of Open Sesame Street. The politicians are merely meat puppets. The hands of donors are up their backs, moving their mouths. And what many of them say, particularly Republican, is that the cure for the money sloshing around to buy influence is to shrink the government so there’s less need for the bribes. That’s a bit like saying the way to keep the barbarians from the gates is to open the gates. Except the gates are already open, and the politicians are the greeters.