Corruption in US politics is a hardy perennial issue. Reliable, sturdy, always there; something to count on in a disconcerting world. This is, of course, because nothing is ever done about it, and the people who ought to care about it mostly don’t, and the people who ought to pay a penalty for engaging in it don’t, and the people who ought to be paying attention mostly aren’t, and the people who ought to be bringing it to the attention of the people who ought to be paying attention and ought to care mostly aren’t. It’s all a bit discouraging, frankly. Or to put it another way, it’s completely disgusting and infuriating, and an outrage, and absurd, and blindingly obviously not the way things ought to be done. And yet it goes on and on and on, like the drumming rabbit with the Eveready battery (that’s an advert, for our non-US readers).
The subject came up at Crooked Timber a few days ago when Henry posted about a certain Congressional Representative:
CT extends its hearty congratulations to Congressman Billy Tauzin (R-La), who’s demonstrating his sincere attachment to free market virtues by retiring from politics and selling himself to the highest bidder. For the last couple of weeks, there’s been a bidding war between the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) for Tauzin’s services…The phenomenon of Congressman-turned-lobbyist is hardly a new one; but the openness and extent of the greed on display is unusual, even for Washington. A sign of the times.
The next morning I heard a brief segment on the BBC World Service about the role of what’s euphemistically (and that’s a big part of the problem, I think) called ‘campaign contributions’ in US politics. The segment was pretty good, it did make some of the points that need to be made, but it was far too polite about it all. The words ‘bribery’ and ‘corruption’ were not used. But that’s the problem. This stuff is just flat bribery, but it’s almost never called that. If it were would the great American electorate be quite so torpid about the whole thing?
It’s very simple. It’s not hard to understand. People with financial interests give huge sums of money to political parties and campaigns, and they expect something in return, and they get it. At the very least they get what is called ‘access’ – they get to talk to Representatives or presidential staffers on the phone, while people without satchels of cash to give away have to make do with a Representative’s staffer. The ability of money to buy access is so taken for granted that it’s not even concealed behind those veils of euphemism – the beneficiaries don’t even bother to pretend that that doesn’t happen. The bizarre mantra that is apparently supposed to make all this okay is ‘Money doesn’t buy influence but it does buy access.’ Oh well that’s okay then! Great! Perfect! Rich people have access and poor people don’t, right, that’s the way to run things, that’s fair. Splendid.
Fresh Air talked to Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity about this yesterday. He and a team of researchers have written a series of books, The Selling of the President 2004 (2000, 1996, etc.) It’s worth a listen, and a read. Maybe some day people will start to pay attention. I think I won’t hold my breath though.