Almost every US lawmaker takes big money aimed at helping private interests
win favorable government action. If they stash the cash for themselves, it's
illegal. If they use it to get reelected, keep their job, and help the private
interests, it's generally legal.
Either way, money still talks in Washington and the legal/illegal
distinction gets easily blurred in all the backroom dealings with private interests
until, that is, a brazen case of bribery pops up. Then Washington, if it had
any sense, might ask if the laws and rules that regulate campaign donations
and lobbyist gifts are tough enough or prosecutors are vigilant enough.
Obviously the laws and prosecutors weren't good enough in the case of Randy "Duke"
Cunningham. The California Republican congressmen resigned on Monday after admitting
he took $2.4 million in bribes - yes, $2.4 million - to help steer Pentagon business
toward select defense contractors. (Newspapers, not prosecutors, first exposed
Mr. Cunningham's unexplained wealth.)
Strangely, his official crimes were committed openly in Congress as he worked
like many lawmakers in pushing through specific benefits for private interests
or calling government departments to coerce a decision in favor of a well-funded,
private interest. The plea agreement stated he steered spending "to the
benefit" of defense contractors who bribed him, and those contracts were
not "in the best interests of the country."
Cunningham, who wisely and contritely admitted the wrongdoing, will probably
serve years in jail. But the question lingers: How many other members of Congress
(or presidents) have collected big money from private interests - either as
campaign-related donations or as bribes - and then conducted the people's business
in shady ways that also weren't "in the best interests of the country"?
And let's not stop there with the obvious rhetorical questions: Why should
large amounts of money, either as bribes or as big campaign funds from businesses
and unions, be permitted at all, since in too many cases such hefty chunks of
change can easily distort a lawmaker's ability to represent the highest interests
of the most people?
The Washington Post reported that Rep. Virgil Goode (R) received more than
$80,000 in campaign donations from the employees of MZM - a defense firm that's
an alleged co-conspirator in Cunningham's case - and then was the principal
sponsor of a measure helping MZM get a contract in his district. He's since
offered to refund the money.
Other recent ethics scandals in Washington, almost all involving Republicans,
point to weaknesses in current laws and a need for some sort of public campaign
financing. They also highlight Congress's inaction toward further campaign-finance
reform and ethics watchdogging - an inaction that seems purposeful: "Members
of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, have used ethics allegations as
a political weapon for years," Common Cause stated after Cunningham's guilty
No wonder dictators laugh at US demands for representative democracy.
They can easily point to American democracy's big failing: allowing the well-monied
to corrupt lawmakers by dictating government actions - either legally or illegally.•