Getting Real III: Bribability Without Liability

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BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to be a lead story.  Naturally it has engendered polemics over who is responsible and a broader discussion of whether offshore drilling should be continued or even increased.  On these great issues that agitate NPR listeners and FOX watchers, I have nothing to say.  I would, however, point to two little facts with which most people who follow the news are probably familiar.  The first fact is that the Minerals Management Agency, which monitors offshore drilling and generates billions of dollars of federal revenue by partnering with companies like British Petroleum, granted BP a “categorical exclusion” from the routine environmental assessments required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The second fact is that BP has showered its lobbying largesse upon leading Democratic political leaders, and at the top of the recipients list stands President Obama. BP is hardly alone: Goldman Sachs has been notoriously generous to the President.

I do not mean to suggest that Mr. Obama has brought Illinois’  famous “play-to-pay” politics to Washington.  He did not have to.  Washington politicians have been playing this game on the grand scale at least since the palmy days of Martin van Buren, who first institutionalized the corrupt conspiracy now known as the Democratic Party.  The Republicans, so far from falling behind in corruption, were such masters that when Republican James Garfield, ran against the Republican “stalwarts” on a reform platform, he was gunned down by a disappointed office-seeker who shouted out “I am a Republican stalwart.”  When Pat Buchanan first announced he was running for the Republican nomination, I reminded him of the fate of the last man who tried to clean up the GOP.

Then what is to be done?  I have three quite practical proposals to make and will devote a brief column to each of them.  The basic problem is that while our political leaders are all—or nearly all—bribable—they are hardly ever liable.  Oh, yes, occasionally some outrageous scoundrel like Dan Rostenkowski, George Ryan, Rad Blagojevoch—or to be fair to Louisiana, Edwin Edwards—goes too far and has to be taken down a peg.  But these poor guys are like Al Capone or John Gotti, mobsters who made the mistake of attracting headlines.  Even their brother-gangsters are willing to throw them to the jackals in the press who are looking to pick up a Pulitzer.

But these are the exceptions.  Most politicians retire into lucrative careers as lobbyists.  They sit on the boards of corporations and non-profit foundations. They are like the Duke of Plaza Toro who boasts: “I sit by selection upon the direction of several companies bubble.  As soon as they’re floated, I’m freely bank-noted.  I’m pretty well paid for my trouble.”  And, as Brutus Jones says when he explains in his theory of life, though small-time crooks land in jail, the fate of the big-time crook is far kinder: “They puts you in the hall of fame when you croaks.”  Anyone remember that poor schoolteacher Lyndon Johnson?  He is like the Roman Verres, who as governor of Sicily was determined to steal, in his first year, enough to live on comfortably the rest of his life, and in the next to steal enough for his friends, and in his third year enough to cover the expenses of his corruption trial.  But Verres actually got convicted and went into exile!

The first thing to fix, then, is the impunity of crooked politicians—please excuse the redundancy: Let us just say “politicians.”  Democratic Athens has the very solution we need.  The Athenians were wise enough to know that most people enter politics in order to enrich themselves and their cronies.  Thus every Athenian magistrate was hupeuthunos, that is, subject to a scrutiny.  His records were investigated and witnesses summoned for a hearing in which the presumption was of guilt: The outgoing magistrate had to prove his innocence, and if he could not, he was subjected to a severe penalty. (I have deliberately simplified the description.)

How could this work for Congress?  Every retiring politician would be subjected to the scrutiny—or perhaps it could be done every two years for a senator or governor or President.  If convicted, jail should be the least of his worries.  Because his crimes are committed against the taxpayers, he should be forced to compensate the taxpayer at, oh, say 10 times the level of proved corruption.  He should also be barred from all public employment, forced to reside outside the Washington area, and forbidden to act as lobbyist or take any position of trust.  In extreme cases—of the type that now come to trial—exile would be a fitting punishment or, better still, relegation to some American province like Haiti.

The possibility of severe penalties will never completely deter criminal minds from doing what comes naturally to them, but it is a start.

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