Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The AP has an article about emails that have been entered into evidence in the Jack Abramoff proceedings, emails that reveal with enormous clarity the bribery at the center of our political system. The emails show what amounts to bribery, plain and simple – if you don’t vote the way we want you to vote, we’re not going to give you money next time:

When Jack Abramoff’s lobbying team wanted to press Republican leaders for help with a tribal client, they minced no words. The help was deserved because Abramoff’s clients overwhelmingly donated to Republicans.

E-mails that have become important evidence in the Abramoff corruption probe state the lobbyist’s team bluntly discussed with a Republican Party official using large political donations as a way to pressure lawmakers and the administration into securing federal money for the Saginaw Chippewa of Michigan.

That’s interesting to me primarily because I know the Chippewa tribe pretty well. They own the Soaring Eagle casino, which despite their astonishingly incompetent management, has dramatically improved the well being of the tribe. Each tribe member receives around $40,000 a year from the casino, without having to work there or do anything. I bought my house from one of them. And since they have the only legal poker room within 3 hours’ drive, I’ve played there a lot. They hired Abramoff to lobby on their behalf and this is the influence their money bought them:

Abramoff’s team ultimately prevailed in securing federal school building money for the Saginaw, overcoming opposition from a single Republican congressional aide and a federal agency along the way. And the lawmakers who helped get thousands of dollars in fresh donations.

Federal bribery law prohibits public officials from taking actions because of gifts or political donations and bars lobbyists from demanding government action in exchange for donations.

Abramoff’s team repeatedly discussed donations as the reason Republican leaders should intervene for the Saginaw, the e-mails show.

“The tribes that want this (not just ours) are the only guys who take care of the Rs,” Abramoff deputy Todd Boulanger wrote in a June 19, 2002, e-mail to Abramoff and his lobbying team, using “Rs” as shorthand for Republicans.

“We’re going to seriously reconsider our priorities in the current lists I’m drafting right now if our friends don’t weigh in with some juice. If leadership isn’t going to cash in a chit for (easily) our most important project, then they are out of luck from here on out,” he wrote, referring to political donation lists.

Now, two things need to be said about this. First, don’t kid yourselves into thinking that this is just the Republicans; the exact same thing happens with Democrats, only the identity of the person offering the bribe changes (sometimes). Second, this sort of thing is absolutely not an exception to the rule – it’s the rule. It may not be stated quite so blatantly, but this is the essence of our political system. Nothing gets done on principle, it only gets done when money changes hands.

Sure, there are limits on what any one individual or company or interest group can donate, but there are a million ways around those rules. If a company is limited to X amount of dollars, they have all the individuals in management give the maximum individual donations. If they’re maxed out on donations to the politician’s reelection committee or PAC, every politician has a list of organizations they support and every lobbyist knows what they are.

If Congressman X is on the board of a non-profit group and the lobbyist has maxed out what he can give to him, the lobbyist makes sure that a large sum gets donated to that non-profit (where there are no such restrictions on how much one can give). If the Congressman has “downline” politicians he’s bringing up behind him, which has become very popular with term limits – if each person gets 2 terms in Congress, they at least want to have control over who replaces them – then money can be donated to them as well. And those are just a sample of the legal ways to do it; there are lots of illegal ways as well.

This is probably the single most fundamental issue facing our nation. Why does government continue to grow at an astounding rate? Because our leaders are paid enormous sums of money to keep our tax dollars flowing to them. And remember, Abramoff was a relatively small timer. Representing Indian casino interests isn’t exactly the big time for lobbyists. Imagine what the insurance industry, the financial industry, the oil industry is able to do behind closed doors. Our elected officials do not represent us or our interests; they represent the interests of those who pay for the commercials that convince us that they represent our interests.

P.S. Here’s my favorite line in the article:

Abramoff’s spokesman, Andrew Blum, declined comment Tuesday on the e-mails.

Abramoff is in prison and has been completely disgraced. His actions may well bring down Congressmen and Senators. And he still has a spokesman? Talk about your bad part time jobs.

Comments

  1. #1 llDayo
    April 12, 2006

    You know, I would love to see the IRS audit every person involved in our federal government (senate, executive, judicial, congress) just to look for any “misappropriations”. In fact, it should be a yearly requirement while in office!

  2. #2 Ginger Yellow
    April 12, 2006

    “This is probably the single most fundamental issue facing our nation.”

    Apart from the whole “president who doesn’t think statutes or the consitution constrain him” thing, I agree.

  3. #3 ruidh
    April 12, 2006

    Let’s be clear, the Abrahamoff Scandal is a Republican scandal. That’s not to say that were the Democrats in charge that some number of Democrats would have done the same. The important thing is that the GOP has so destroyed bipartesan cooperation in Congress that they have been able to keep all of the graft to themselves. The Ds can;t deliver, so they don’t get the really illegal payments.

  4. #4 shargash
    April 12, 2006

    Money is the root of all Bushism. Money has always been important in our elections (“always” meaning as far back as I can remember, anyway). Money buys air time, it buys campaign workers, it gets the message out to the voters.

    However, in recent years, the role of money has changed. Instead of going to influence the voter, it is going directly to influence lawmakers, largely bypassing the voter. Congressmen sneak pro-business provisions into bills after being reconciled between the houses in direct response to being paid large sums of money.

    Absent that money machine, we wouldn’t have “Beavis Unchained” for our president.

  5. #5 Anuminous
    April 12, 2006

    Ginger:

    I keep hoping that our current Supreme Executive is much more a transient (albeit gigantic) issue with our nation. This buying and selling of politicians, well, how many poor politicians are you aware of?

  6. #6 CPT_Doom
    April 12, 2006

    Although I agree with Ed that this kind of vote-trading is in no way limited to the Republican party, I hate it when I see a post like his basically call ALL members of Congress corrupt. There is no proof that the majority of House and Senate members ONLY vote their pocket books (and this case also makes a major argument in favor of public campaign financing), and I know there are decent, upstanding members of Congress.

    Also, as ruidh pointed out, the specific controversy with Abramoff is a GOP issue – and it was the mechanization of such graft through Delay’s office that makes the Abramoff scandal that much worse. It is bad enough that a quid pro quo might exist with an individual member of Congress and a lobbyist, but Delay and his cronie made it a feature of doing business with the GOP leadership. They basically demanded more than $$ from these groups – they attempted to freeze out any and all Democratic influence in lobbying. To work with the GOP in Congress, not only did you have to donate, but you also had to hire former GOP staffers and Congressmen as employees, to the exclusion of anyone the GOP did not like. This was graft on a vast institutional scale.

  7. #7 Ed Brayton
    April 12, 2006

    CPT wrote:

    Although I agree with Ed that this kind of vote-trading is in no way limited to the Republican party, I hate it when I see a post like his basically call ALL members of Congress corrupt. There is no proof that the majority of House and Senate members ONLY vote their pocket books (and this case also makes a major argument in favor of public campaign financing), and I know there are decent, upstanding members of Congress.

    I agree there are some, but they are the exception. US Representative is the highest one can progress in politics and have it still be even a possibility of not selling out to the highest bidder. If you have a small district and you’ve really established a track record there or you really do solid constituent service, and if you don’t do something outrageous that will get you targeted hard by the opposing party apparatus, you can keep getting reelected without spending enormous amounts of money every 2 years. But this is the exception, not the rule. And above that level, the money required is simply too high. It cost millions and millions to run a competitive Senate campaign, tens of millions in some states. You just don’t succeed at that level without massive amounts of money from corporate interests and you don’t get that money without selling out. If you find a single honest person at that level or above, put them in a glass case in a museum.

    Also, as ruidh pointed out, the specific controversy with Abramoff is a GOP issue – and it was the mechanization of such graft through Delay’s office that makes the Abramoff scandal that much worse. It is bad enough that a quid pro quo might exist with an individual member of Congress and a lobbyist, but Delay and his cronie made it a feature of doing business with the GOP leadership. They basically demanded more than $$ from these groups – they attempted to freeze out any and all Democratic influence in lobbying. To work with the GOP in Congress, not only did you have to donate, but you also had to hire former GOP staffers and Congressmen as employees, to the exclusion of anyone the GOP did not like. This was graft on a vast institutional scale.

    True of this specific scandal, but it’s true of both parties. The Democrats aren’t in control now, so all the money is flowing that way. But turn back the clock a bit and you’ll find the same thing going on with the Democrats. Tip O’Neill, Dan Rostenkowski, Robert Byrd, Jim Wright – all heavy hitters in the Democratic party who controlled appropriations and were rewarded handsomely for it. Go back and look at the amount of money being spent in the early 90s on financial industry deregulation, GATT and NAFTA and you’ll see vast amounts of money being spent to lobby the Democrats as well. And corporations aren’t foolish; they don’t spend that kind of money without getting results.

  8. #8 Sosiosh
    April 12, 2006

    I’d like to see someone much smarter than me comment on this idea: would it be possible to force donations to go through a blind trust? Would that even work? It is awfully hard to buy somebody’s influence if they don’t know where the money is coming from. I suppose the beneficiary of a donation might know who it is coming from, but what’s to stop a person from lying and taking credit for a donation they *didn’t* make.

  9. #9 Ginger Yellow
    April 12, 2006

    I keep hoping that our current Supreme Executive is much more a transient (albeit gigantic) issue with our nation. This buying and selling of politicians, well, how many poor politicians are you aware of?

    Anuminous, I take your point, but I’d be more inclined to agree with you if the Congress had showed any sign that they care about what the Bush/Cheney approach to constitutional interpretation signifies. As it is, and assuming Bush doesn’t go totally crazy and declare himself commander in chief for life, the next time some monarchical asshole does something similar to the NSA thing or worse, they’ll have precedent to back them up.

  10. #10 SkookumPlanet
    April 12, 2006

    I’d like to toss in an idea not yet brought up, which deepens, or expands, the problem.

    Are cash-flush economic players that different from average citizens and their groups? I suspect our legislators, more so the higher up one looks, are indundated with non-economic interests who want them to do, stop doing, or make others do or stop doing, a mind-boggling array of “somethings”.

    I don’t know this for a fact, but saw indications as a journalist. Beyond, say, the constituent mail flooding congressional offices. If so, this is a problem on a whole ‘nother level. Isn’t that roughly the functional definition of a representative democracy? The group [say, NIH versus fed-ed funding] that says “Okay, we’ll sacrifice our share of tax-cash” gets screwed. And when you start seeing it as a general cultural problem…

    Just another topic for here. Carry on.

    [FYI only. Not my suggested topic. My obsession with psychomarketing indicates a gigantic end-run around specific campaigns and thus around limiting campaign contributions. Not any contributions to think tanks, individuals, and media who perpetually campaign to cement agendas into the public's mind, global warming for example. Most Dems still do this anew each election cycle, unfortunately. The "War on Christianity" is simply an ongoing get-out-the-vote drive. Whoops . . . spoke, or wrote, too soon. This could be part of the idea I'm throwing out -- a general cultural problem of citizens petitioning government, expecting government, to do things. Lots of things.]

    Now, carry on.

  11. #11 SkookumPlanet
    April 12, 2006

    A bit of wording isn’t correct…..

    The group [say, NIH versus fed-ed funding] that says “Okay, we’ll do our fair share of sacrificing tax-cash” gets screwed.

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