Posted by: sean | December 16, 2008

Corruption or horse trading?

The Times has a piece today about some possible legal problems Fitzgerald might have prosecuting Blagojevich for corruption. In the article, the gray area between “horse trading” and corruption comes up:

“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 Mr. Bennett, referring to a passage in the criminal complaint filed against the governor suggesting that Mr. 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 presenting his case, Mr. Fitzgerald said Mr. Blagojevich had crossed the line from deal-making to criminality, citing an example in the complaint in which the governor discussed with an aide obtaining a $300,000-a-year job from the Service Employees International Union in return for naming a candidate to the seat.

“We’re not trying to criminalize people making political horse trades on policies or that sort of thing,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “But it is criminal when people are doing it for their personal enrichment. And they’re doing it in a way that is, in this case, clearly criminal.”

But politicians routinely receive political contributions in return for their decisions, whether they involve making appointments or taking a stand on legislation. Lawmakers vote in favor of bills and steer appropriations backed by their donors without fear that prosecutors will bug their offices and homes.

This reminds me of a friend of mine who was explaining American politics to his girlfriend in Paris. She was trying to understand campaign donations, and her main objection was how exchanging money for influence, whether in the form of appointments or policy, could possibly be called anything but corruption.

My friend was at a loss to explain why this was legal. The American political scene seems to make a distinction between money that goes directly into an individual’s pockets and money that goes into a campaign or party coffers. Personally, I’m not really sure that it makes much of a difference, because the end result is the same: lobbies and individuals trading money for influence. Furthermore, the issue of ambassadorships has always seemed particularly corrupt to me. How is it that a few hundred thousand dollars can buy me the post of Ambassador?

We might ask what the harm is when it comes to representing America in small comfortable countries where American interests aren’t really in play. But the harm is one of principle. The idea of democracy is that it’s a meritocracy, where those who are appointed by elected leaders are appointed because they’re the most qualified person for the job. If the post of American Ambassador to Belize is essentially for sale, then what’s to differentiate the US from a banana republic?

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