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December 07, 2003

This is Not Bribery

Ever since Robert Novak reported that GOPer Nick Smith was told to vote yes on the Medicare vote or suffer the consequences, the progressive blogosphere has been trying to figure out who should be in jail for bribery or blackmail. See Slate and CalPundit for examples.

But I just find it hard to believe anyone is taking this seriously as even vaguely a crime story. Nick Smith was told his son might either gain campaign support-- including campaign cash-- or find his son's opponent getting support depending on how Smith voted on the bill.

That's called politics. Nothing more. If you vote the party line, you get institutional support. If you buck it, you and your allies will find yourself in a political grave, at least if the powers that be have their way.

I'm not even sure if this is a particularly repulsive part of politics. No one likes campaign money, but for those like myself who like party discipline as a way to reinforce real political differences between the parties, and thereby give voters a clear choice at the polls, money is one of the only ways political parties have to establish some kind of party discipline.

Unlike in other countries where the party can decide who is on the ballot line, the US primary system converts each politician into a mini-party unto him or herself in their district. Threatening to give or withhold national financial resources is about the only way national party leaders actually have influence.

In the ideal, I might prefer other mechanisms for establishing the national identity of parties, but the whole supposed shock at the Nick Smith story has the flavor of Casablanca-- how dare their be gambling in the temple of politics.

The only story here is that the Medicare bill was unpopular even with the GOP rank-and-file, and the only way this stinker could be passed was with party pressure. That's a good story; the fake "bribery" allegations just distracts from the real story.

Maybe I'm debunking this meme because I hate the way both sides jump to convert political stories into crime stories. Put this in the same category at the Plame affair-- I think Bush's actions in both cases were disgusting but hardly should involve criminal allegations.

Update: For folks who think this should involve criminal investigations, if I call up a legislator and tell them I'll vote against them if they vote wrong on an issue, is that extortion? If I tell him the issue is so important that if they vote right on it, they have my vote, is that bribery? Isn't a vote something of value?

Seriously, if a politicians is told, vote a certain way and 100G will be placed in a swiss bank account secretly for their private use, now that's bribery. But as long as all that is offered in exchange for a political action is help or harm within the political world, we should not be in the realm of criminal law discussions.

Congressional votes should have political consequences. That's what democratic accountability is all about. I'm all for public funding of campaigns to make special interest threats less important than threats to withdraw votes, but since campaign spending is considered a form of political speech, it is ridiculous to claim that promising to "speak" (contribute) for or against a candidate based on their vote is any form of bribery.

An additional post here.

Posted by Nathan at December 7, 2003 03:00 AM