When most Americans think of bribery, they think of some oleaginous lobbyist handing over a brown paper bag stuffed with $100 bills, buying the vote of some venal politician. They think of Lyndon Johnson with envelopes full of cash. They think of William Jefferson's freezer deposit box. Yes, all of these images are accurate and classic examples of bribery, but while they tend to titillate and amaze us, they also distort the true picture of bribery in our politics.
Handing over cash – in bags, envelopes or freezers – is rare in 21st-century America. More common is the conveyance of the things cash can buy. It's impolite for a lobbyist to hand a congressman an envelope with 100 Ben Franklins tucked inside, but it's commonplace for that same lobbyist to hand that same congressman an envelope with ten $1,000 campaign contribution checks inside. What's the difference? Sure, the cash is "off the books" and the contributions are open and transparent, but so what? The congressman feels the same debt to that lobbyist whether he gets the checks or cash.
How about when a lobbyist hosts a fundraiser for that congressman at a posh restaurant, or in a sky box at the sports arena? That's not a negotiable instrument at all, but is the impact any less?
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Is the cash a bribe, but the check not? Is the check a bribe too, but not the meal or sports ticket? Don't most of our statesmen repeatedly tell us that "you can't buy my vote for a $2,500 contribution" or a meal, let alone a ticket to see the Washington Redskins? Most of us believe them. But are they correct? How small does a gratuity need to be to not be a bribe?
In the Bible, the founding document of Western civilization, we are enjoined not to accept bribes. So important is it not to take bribes that twice in the Pentateuch man is warned that bribery has a blinding effect. Whom does it blind? The wise and the righteous. How much more so would the eyes of the unwise and less righteous be affected?
Most members of Congress are earnest when they proclaim they cannot be bribed, but they are missing the point. The minute they accept any gratuity at all, they are bribed. How so?
When presented with a gift, human beings respond. Some respond by hating the giver, but that's rare, and usually confined to very young and immature children rebelling against their parents. Most of us respond with gratitude. We have to. It irks us when our relationships are uneven. The recipient wants to become the provider. It's a normal human reaction and one we usually encourage as it builds community and fealty.
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The problem emerges when the recipient is a public servant. Like the judges in the Bible, the public servant is tasked with representing society and must act impartially.
Any action that engenders in a public servant a feeling of gratitude also creates a need to reciprocate and erodes impartiality. If a lobbyist or anyone else seeking favor from the government provides even a small meal, even a glass of beer, the natural human response is triggered.
It might be possible for most public servants to control this urge for a time, especially when the gratuity is insignificant. That is the thinking behind rules that limit gifts from lobbyists to a negligible amount. But once the gift is conveyed, the unstoppable human response has been triggered, and whether or not the public servant responds, a line has been crossed. Indeed, even if the public servant refuses to change his course of action to help the benefactor, the risk will remain forever that he will do something to repay the debt. It is on that basis that lobbyists "invest" in congressmen and their staffs through the provision of any kindness or gratuity possible. These interactions are geared to build access to a decision maker, but they are also meant to influence the decision maker, if possible. And that's where the line is crossed.
It's not legal to hand a congressman that bag of cash and request a specific action, but on every weeknight in our nation's capital lobbyists ply members of Congress with contributions, meals and other gratuities. As long as there is not a specific quid pro quo, it is legal. But it is also wrong. It is bribery, and it must be stopped.
Until and unless these same congressmen come to realize that they must eliminate entirely any conveyance of value from the lobbyists, their clients or others seeking favor from the federal government, our nation will continue to revile its national legislators and hold them in contempt. Congress does not need image consultants, they just need the common sense to stop for good the bribery that spoils our body politic.