© Josh Sager – April 2015
Last Wednesday, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was indicted on 14 counts stemming from his acceptance of campaign donations and gifts in exchange for political favors. Menendez appears set to become a poster-child for Washington corruption and virtually nobody has demonstrated themselves willing to go to bat for his defense.
Unfortunately, while he presents a great example of overt corruption, Menendez is just the tip of the corruption iceberg. His crime isn’t his being more corrupt than other politicians, but rather his willingness to step over the very faint line that delineates legalized corruption from illegal corruption
According to prosecutors, Menendez exchanged campaign donations, flights on a private jet, and luxurious accommodations while traveling for a variety of political favors with a Florida ophthalmologist named Salomon Melgen. Menendez is accused of using his position on the Foreign Relations Committee to do a variety of favors, including fast-tracking visa applications and directing the state department to pressure foreign governments into making favorable deals with Melgen’s business partners. He didn’t declare these “gifts” on official disclosure forms and it appears that he tied specific donations to specific favors.
While the media may focus on Menendez and decry him as more corrupt than the average Washington resident, the sad fact is that almost EVERY politician in the post-Citizens United and McCutcheon political climate has become corrupted by money. In Washington, corruption is now the norm and politicians are heavily beholden to moneyed interests for campaign donations. If a politician refuses to “play the game” by begging donors for money, they will likely face a primary or general election opponent who overwhelms them with campaign advertising, paid for by big-money interests.
If the prosecutors are correct, Menendez is guilty of being just as corrupt as most of the rest of Washington, only he made the mistake of making his corruption explicit. It is illegal for a politician to request specific donations from interests in exchange for favors, but it is perfectly legal for the same interests to pay the same politician just as long as they use a few euphemisms (ex. “economic liberty” or “free trade”) to conceal their quid-pro-quo.
Ironically, Menendez is simply following the example of two of the men who helped open the floodgates of corruption into our political system. Supreme Court Justice Scalia has a long history of accepting extremely luxurious trips and in-kind benefits from right wing groups, while Justice Thomas has received hundreds of thousands in income through his wife’s “consulting” group that he failed to disclose.
Legalized bribery is, in many ways, the most pervasive and damaging problem in modern American politics. Big-money interests can use opaque intermediaries to “donate” millions of dollars to politicians. This type of corruption occurs in both political parties and across all partisan affiliations. Because everybody does it, nobody is able to call the corruption what it is and there is no incentive for any politician to stick up for good government.
We must not let the isolated successes in rooting out overt corruption distract or placate us in regard to the greater, systemic, corruption that pervades our system. The only solution to the systemic corruption in Washington is a constitutional amendment that bans money in politics and enforces publicly funded elections.