Political Influence-Peddling Gains Finesse

These days, influence peddling in politics rarely takes the form of outright bribery. Instead, through political action committees and other means, the identity of donors and recipients of campaign funds are often disguised.

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DANIEL SCHORR: Influence peddling has undergone some changes in technique since the days of ABSCAM - a generation ago.


NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: ABSCAM, short for Arab scam, was an elaborate FBI sting operation. An Asian posing as an Arab sheik trapped eight members of Congress, some of whom were filmed stuffing wads of money into their clothes. That scandal put the politicians on notice that straight-out bribery could be hazardous.

The trick these days is to disguise the donor or the recipient - or both. One device is the political action committee, the PAC, a committee of officers and staff of a company or institution formed for the specific purpose of collecting contributions to a candidate's campaign fund. Often, ways are found to reward the generous donors. The candidate knows who the actual donors are.

A good illustration of the PAC bypass is afforded by the giant mortgage companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Center for Responsive Politics reveals that the two giant companies have spent $170 million in the past decade on lobbying.

A little of that was in the form of PAC contributions, nominally from the staffs of the companies. You may wonder why these troubled mortgage lenders have had so little trouble with regulators over the years.

There is another popular way of not being caught with filthy lucre in your hands: the politician's library. You will recall that President Clinton, in his final hours in office, issued a pardon for the fugitive tax evader Marc Rich. Did Rich pay anything? No, but his divorced wife donated $450,000 to the soon-to-be Clinton Library in Little Rock.

And to bring this all quite up to date, there is Charles Rangel, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. It has been disclosed that Rangel wrote letters to corporations having business before his committee, soliciting contributions. Not for himself, perish the thought, but for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College in New York. Full disclosure: I am a City College alumnus.

Rangel says if it was an ethical problem, I wouldn't do it, but one way or another, money seems to be at the root of all politics. This is Daniel Schorr.

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