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.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

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

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: