Disorganized Thoughts on Horse Trading in Politics on the Eve of the Governor Blagojevich Trial

“When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become president; I’m now beginning to believe it.” Clarence Darrow

“There is no distinctly American criminal class-except Congress.” Mark Twain

May 29, 2010

Former Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich was indicted for “efforts to illegally obtain campaign contributions in exchange for official action.” Is this very much different from efforts to legally obtain campaign contributions in exchange for official action? Is it so crazy to pose the question? Or is it as in the words of William Shakespeare’s, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?”

In the case of congressional earmarks and sweetheart Washington deals, or just garden variety official action for campaign contributions, it seems at times that the line between illegal pay for play in politics and official quid pro quo is paper-thin.

For example, by the admission of the White House on May 28, 2010, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel asked former President Bill Clinton to ask Rep. Joe Sestak to drop a Democratic Pennsylvania Senate bid against Sen. Arlen Specter, in return offering unpaid advisory positions. What if the offer was simply phrased as, “I'll trade you Secretary of the Navy for you not to run against Spectre?” Can this be legal, however it was phrased? Or is this not quintessentially quid pro quo? Some Republicans are asking for an independent criminal probe and not settling for the White House being allowed to police itself. A good idea, but a dialogue on the role of this type of horse trading in politics would be even better.

Ear-marks, which are legally given often times for campaign contributions are considered to be the legal part of quid pro quo in our political system. What is politics without an examination of the almost direct relationship between earmarks and campaign contributions? Think about this-because politics cannot exist without both, at every level.

Lobbyists give campaign contributions for earmarks in legislation. Harry Reid received almost $1,000,000 in 2010 election cycle out of $4,447,000 spent by the Vegas casinos to keep online gambling illegal. Harry Reid lobbies to keep online gambling illegal and is the casinos’ staunchest advocate on the issue. If this is not quid pro quo, what is it?

The rationale for what is legal and what is illegal in quid pro quo deals in politics ought to have no bearing on who the party is that is doing the asking and getting. The hundreds of billions of dollars spent on earmarks for pet projects back home are manifestations of quid pro quo thinly disguised to a sleepy media and public under the veil of constituent democracy in action. When Congress or the White House does it, it cannot be called, “democracy,” “lobbying” or “free speech,” and criminal extortion or bribery if done by someone else…well maybe it can.

Legislation creates industry, first by lobbyists and then many cottage industries to explain the legislation and its impact and meaning. The other effect of legislation other than the growth of government itself is earmarks—earmarks are simply quid pro quo.

Congressional earmarking thrives in the grey area of the law which seems to regard quid pro quo as official and legal action-this is interestingly unquestioned by the media or the public. The recent dismissal of all charges against former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) demonstrates how thorny public corruption cases can be probably because we are entering the grayest of modern areas in present day politics. Most of the time, the media only discusses earmarks in terms of conflict of interest stories-reliably missing the forest the time for the trees.

Like in the financial markets increased transparency might have an impact on some of the most corrupt elements of the practice of earmarking, but it is still a gamble and members of Congress perhaps think that there is a better than even chance that it will pay off for years during which they might escape detection and prosecution.

Arguably, the only good earmark is a dead earmark. But by this argument health care would never have been passed and politics would grind to a halt at the state and federal level. Using earmarks to buy campaign contributions, as pay offs to political cronies, to employ your relatives or your former staff members (all practices which are commonly found in earmarking) constitutes quid pro quo.

When does an earmark cross the line from being a “constituent service” to a “pay-to-play” scheme and a “crime”? We as a people must not be too complacent to ask this question. We really ought to think about this.

On the other hand, is it the law that is at fault for seeming to split the atom? Politics has always been, it can be argued, entirely about quid pro quo. It starts at the most local level when a person leaves work on a given February or November and walks to his polling place to cast his vote-the only means by which he can assert any power over how he is governed and the rules he must live under---no one that makes this walk has ever said, “let me find the candidate who will do nothing for me and not improve my life in anyway.” This has simply never happened and understanding this explains politics. The voter’s story goes on to the precinct captain, the alderman, etc. The rationale remains the same for the voter and the politician at the local and national level at some point we can blame politicians but we are blaming the other side of the coin we are on.