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The Conservative Curmudgeon
January 8, 2009

Pay-for-Play in Illinois and Business as Usual in Washington:
How Different Are They?

by Allan C. Brownfeld

There has been much discussion in recent days of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s alleged pay-for-play scheme to sell Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder. Sadly, this is not much different from the usual political enterprise observed in Washington and throughout the country — only more blatant and caught on tape by the FBI.

“In some ways, the only thing Blagojevich did wrong was that he was stupid enough to say it out loud,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center. “For other people, it’s a wink and a nod. Verbalizing it crosses the line.”

Northwestern University law professor Albert Altschuler says that if Blagojevich “made a quid pro quo offer for campaign funds, then he’s guilty of breaking the law.  There’s a thin line. It’s different if he said, ‘If I was in the Senate, I’d be in a position to raise money for you.’”

It may be legal for those who contribute large amounts of money to presidential campaigns to be named to ambassadorships and other important posts, but what exactly is the ethical difference between this and what the Illinois governor is accused of doing?

The way the game is usually played, a specific quid-pro-quo is not discussed when campaign money is solicited. This, of course, would be illegal. But those who contribute funds and those who receive them understand that what is being purchased is access. The specifics of what is wanted are discussed later.

Robert S. Bennett, one of Washington’s best-known white-collar criminal defense lawyers, says that the Blagojevich case raises many issues about political corruption.  “This town is full of people who call themselves ambassadors and all they did was pay $200,000 or $300,000 to the Republican or Democratic Party,” said Bennett, referring to a passage in the criminal complaint filed against the governor suggesting that Blagojevich was interested in an ambassadorial appointment in return for the Senate seat. “You have to wonder, how much of this guy’s problem was his language, rather than what he really did.”

In Washington, politicians regularly receive political contributions in return for their decisions, whether they involve making appointments or taking a particular position on a piece of legislation. Lawmakers regularly vote in favor of bills and steer appropriations backed by their donors. Why else, after all, would special interests contribute millions of dollars to politicians? Satirist Mark Russell once noted that, while we may think there are two parties, Republican and Democratic, liberal and conservative, in reality there is only one party, “a fundraising party.”
The incentive structure within Congress is to raise a great deal of money, even if individual congressman involved in fundraising comes from a safe seat in a largely one-party district. The Hill, the congressional newspaper, reports that, “Every few months the Democratic National Committee distributes a list to caucus members showing which members have paid their ‘dues’ -- the money they’re expected to give to the party — and met their fundraising goals. The chairmen of ‘exclusive’ committees, like Appropriations and Ways and Means, are expected to pay $500,000 in dues and raise at least $l million.  Top leaders are expected to pay at least $800,000 and raise $2.5 million.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) hit her target of raising $25 million.”

The Republicans are engaged in precisely the same enterprise. According to The Hill, “One of the more blatant examples was the fundraising one-upmanship between Republican Reps. Jerry Lewis of California and Hal Rogers of Kentucky as they vied for the Appropriations chairmanship in 2004. Traditionally, Rep. Ralph Regula (R-OH), the most senior candidate, would have been next in line. But he lived up to his reputation as a lackluster  fundraiser.... Rogers stepped up with a $300,000 check to the Battleground 2004 fundraising program. Then Lewis strode to the microphone with a check for $600,000. Regula fumed quietly. Lewis won the chairmanship and is now the ranking member. Regula is retiring....”

The amount of outright corruption that appears to be permissible in Congress is formidable.  Consider the case of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Among the most serious revelations are the following:

1. Rangel led a successful congressional effort to protect a tax break that benefited an oil company after the firm’s chief executive pledged a $l million contribution to the Rangel Center at City College of New York.

2. Rangel failed to properly report income he received from a vacation property in the Dominican Republic.

3. Rangel failed to comply with state law regarding the ownership of four rent-controlled apartments in New York City.

4. Rangel improperly claimed a tax deduction for a primary residence in Washington, D.C., despite also claiming his primary residence in his New York congressional district.

5. Rangel routed $800,000 from his campaign committee treasury to his son for virtually no work on a website.

Thus far, the House Ethics Committee and the Democratic leadership in the House have taken no action against Rep. Rangel.

But the line between “illegal” and “unethical” remains less than clear. Writing in The Nation, Eric Alterman notes that, “By some standards — even by some New York standards — the corruption of Charles Rangel is a minor league affair. After all, New York’s senior senator, Charles Schumer, bears significant responsibility for the onset of the financial crisis on Wall Street, owing to his eagerness to demand weaker and weaker regulation for the people writing the checks to fund his political ambitions.”

According to The New York Times, Schumer, as a member of the Banking and Finance Committees, took steps to “protect industry players from government oversight and tougher rules.... Over the years, he has also helped save financial institutions billions of dollars in higher taxes and fees.” These included weakening bank regulations, undercutting efforts to regulate credit-rating agencies, and interfering with efforts to force corporations to increase the transparency of their balance sheets.”

How the case against Governor Blagojevich is finally resolved, and whether his appointee to the U.S. Senate, Roland Burris, is seated remain to be seen. What we do know for certain, however, is that his pay-for-play philosophy remains alive and well in Washington.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2008 2008 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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