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Breaking the system of ‘legalized bribery’

Marketplace Staff Jun 13, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Jack Abramoff just keeps on coming back like a bad penny . . . Though his corruption cost a lot more. This week’s appearance is in the trial of former Bush Administration official David Safavian. The jury’s considering charges Safavian lied about his relationship with the disgraced lobbyist. It’s the first Abramoff-related case actually to go to trial. Abramoff himself and some of his associates have just confessed. Commentator Jeff Birnbaum says the paper trail is making Washington very nervous.

JEFF BIRNBAUM: So far, the scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff has produced some vivid examples of modern Washington graft–skybox tickets, pricey meals, golf junkets to Scotland. Yet at the center of it all is something more prosaic, and potentially far more explosive: good old-fashioned campaign donations.

Deep in plea agreements won by Justice Department lawyers are admissions by the defendants–Abramoff and his cronies Tony Rudy, Michael Scanlon and Neil Volz–that they conspired to use campaign contributions to bribe lawmakers. Even though these gifts were fully disclosed and within prescribed limits, the government said they were criminal, and the defendants agreed.

This aspect of the case hasn’t gotten much attention. But if similar prosecutions were to become commonplace, the paid persuaders of the captial and their big-money clients would be dealt a body blow. If prosecutors begin to assert as a matter of routine that lobbyist gifts and campaign contributions are a form of bribery, it could open up a whole new front in the decades-old effort to break the nexus of money and politics.

That would be a terrific development. After all, Congress has tried for years to reform itself and has failed miserably. Money continues to grow as an influence on the system, and lawmakers do nothing to alter that trend.”Phyisican heal thyself” doesn’t have its equivalent when it comes to national legislatures.

But it should, campaign finance laws, after all, are built on a legal fiction. It’s this: donations are considered within the law even though they are actually bribes at root. Think of them as “legalized bribery.”Interests give money to buy votes. Only the fact that campaigns have to be privately funded has forced our legal system to accept them as legit.

Perhaps the only way to rein in Washington’s money culture is to stop pushing elected officials to change the system but to gin up investigations like the Abramoff cases that would put lawmakers and their donors in jail.

RYSSDAL: Jeff Birnbaum is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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