August 18, 2007
None Dare Call It Bribery
Myriam Miedzian and Gary Ferdman
No more gifts, meals, or trips from lobbyists--so stipulate the ethics and lobbying rules Congress recently passed. They represent a significant step in protecting the interests of the governed, but do not challenge that long-standing but mistaken assumption that expensive dinners, rides on corporate jets and cut-rate mansions are bribes, but millions in political contributions are not.
So when then Congressman Duke Cunningham, serving on a powerful defense appropriations committee, acquired a $2.5 million mansion with the help of Pentagon contractors-- in exchange for getting them lucrative contracts-- it was considered bribery, and he was fined and sent to prison. But when Cunningham or any member of congress accepts $ 2.5 million in campaign contributions from a large corporation intent on influencing their votes, that's not bribery.
What's the difference? In one case the politician is corrupted by the desire for material goods, in the other case by the desire for power and prestige. For many if not most politicians, what could be more of a motivation than the desire for power and prestige?
We Americans love our euphemisms. We call our public toilets restrooms. We downgrade global warming to climate change. We call bribes political contributions and refer to the bribe-makers - the Pentagon contractors, drug, insurance and oil companies and their top executives who usually receive a handsome return on their political investments - as "donors" as if they were making altruistic gifts to a charity.
Our Merriam Webster dictionary defines a bribe as: "Money or favor given or promised in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust."
The key part of the definition lies in influencing conduct by giving money or favors; it does not state that the money or favors have to take the form of direct, immediate, material benefits.
So let's face it, our government is based on bribes, and the candidate who collects the most bribes usually wins. So how much each one rakes in is an ongoing media focus. Typical recent headlines: ABC: "It's Official: Obama Tops Clinton in Primary Haul." CBS: "Thompson's Fundraising Is Short Of Goal." New York Times: "Romney Sees Sharp Decline in Donations from 2 States." Another Times article reveals that Obama leads Democrats with $32.8 million and Clinton is second with $27 million. Obama has gotten big bucks from Wall Street. He voted against a 30% ceiling on charge card interest rates. Abandoning her 1993 goal of universal coverage, Clinton has become a good girl on health care reform--piecemeal measures only, please. She's raked in over $2 million from the health industry.
And if you're worried about global warming and profiteering at the pump, take note that Giuliani has received $400,000 in big oil bribes.
By the time a member of congress leaves office, like W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, former Louisiana Republican Congressman, he or she may have laid the groundwork for a multi-million dollar career. In 2004, Tauzin, who carried on on the House floor about how much he loves his mother (she apparently would have suffered immensely if the government--i.e. taxpayers-- paid less for drugs through price negotiations) played a key role in getting the Medicare Drug Bill through Congress. In exchange for protecting drug company profits, Tauzin is paid over $2 million a year to head up the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America--whose member companies are the beneficiaries of the bill he helped write.
The ethics bill stipulates that representatives have to wait one year and senators two before they can lobby former colleagues and collect their deferred compensation bribes. Hey, with salaries in the millions awaiting them, why not take off a year or two, before cashing in.
We are the only advanced industrialized country without universal health care. In countries like France and Germany, candidates get free TV time, and elections are to a large extent publicly financed and regulated to avoid excessive corporate influence. No bribes; no catering to insurance companies.
47 million Americans are without health care coverage, and the insured suffer huge deductibles and care decisions often driven by profit maximization, not medical need, endangering the health of the American people.
Chinese courts condemned to death Zheng Xiaoyu , the former head of the Chinese version of the Food and Drug Administration because he endangered the health of the Chinese people. He was executed for taking bribes valued at $850,000.
We are not calling for Billy Tauzin's execution. But we insist on calling a bribe a bribe and recognizing that as long as politicians depend on bribes, not only will government be deficient in providing health, but oil, coal, and automobile companies will continue to hinder dealing with global warming, and weapons manufacturers will continue to encourage unnecessary wars.
Myriam Miedzian is the author of Boys Will Be Boys, and writes frequently on social and political issues. Her website is:
Gary Ferdman is a non-profit executive.