Bribery on the Floor of the House?

One of the arguments that’s often deployed against campaign finance reform is that the role of money in politics has been overstated: that money follows votes, not the other way around. In other words, interests gravitate towards, and contribute to, candidates who naturally support their positions on key issues. This argument says that, sure, back in the old days, lobbyists would turn up in Congressman Foofoorah’s office with a sack of cash, and walk out with an additional vote their way, but that sort of thing doesn’t happen any more.

If you believe that, you should go ask Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) how he feels after the way he was treated in the push to get votes for the GOP’s Medicare bill:

During 14 years in the Michigan Legislature and 11 years in Congress, Rep. Nick Smith had never experienced anything like it. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, in the wee hours last Saturday morning, pressed him to vote for the Medicare bill. But Smith refused. Then things got personal.
Smith, self term-limited, is leaving Congress. His lawyer son Brad is one of five Republicans seeking to replace him from a GOP district in Michigan’s southern tier. On the House floor, Nick Smith was told business interests would give his son $100,000 in return for his father’s vote. When he still declined, fellow Republican House members told him they would make sure Brad Smith never came to Congress. After Nick Smith voted no and the bill passed, Duke Cunningham of California and other Republicans taunted him that his son was dead meat…

And this is from paleo-conservative Bob Novak, so it’s hardly likely to be a liberal fairy tale. (A story from the Associated Press confirms Novak’s account.)

Let’s just make sure we’re all on the same page with this — someone (Smith’s not saying who) offered on the floor of the House to corral $100,000 for Smith’s son’s campaign if only Smith would change his vote; it’s hard to get more quid-pro-quo than that. And, when Smith refused to do so, they essentially told him that his son was a marked man in GOP politics. There’s four other Republicans who want to contend for that district; I wonder which one of them got the $100,000 prize?

Over on Slate, Timothy Noah argues that this case meets the criteria for the Federal crime of attempted bribery. The only question is, who offered the bribe? Who committed the crime? Like I said, Smith’s not telling…



December 1, 2003
7:45 pm

Hmmm…two things to note, though I agree with the implied point about strong-arm tactics w/r/t the Social Slavery/Mediscare vote.
1) He didn’t change his vote when offered $100,000 (to his son, but nonetheless).
2) In the end, the sorts of threats that go on routinely in parliamentary systems were employed on him, such as disenfranchising a political ally (again, his son).
So how could campaign finance reform have helped, if the laws against bribery don’t work? Presumably they still would have had to have delivered, and they might not have extorted, er, fundraised that money out of businesses or other interests who opposed the things that Smith’s son wanted to do.
That being said, I’m sorry this thing passed. Campaign finace reform? How about limiting the amount of money politicians can hand to certain voters from other people’s pockets to buy votes?

Jason Lefkowitz

December 2, 2003
10:05 am

The reason it’s relevant to campaign finance reform is because the big question surrounding the issue of money in politics has always been the issue of quid pro quo (“something for something”). Is that money translating directly into favors for the person(s) who provided it?
If it is, then there’s a need for reform; if it isn’t, no need exists. So reformers argue that the quid pro quo exists but is well hidden, and defenders of the system argue that there’s no quid pro quo relationship, that the money follows the votes and not the other way around.
That’s what makes this case so notable; it’s the first time that I know of that a lawmaker has directly acknowledged that someone offered him (or, in this case, a member of his family) a large sum of money in direct exchange for a switched vote. That’s quid pro quo without a doubt.
As you note, Rep. Smith was honorable enough not to take the money, which makes him a good man in my book. But there are damn few good men walking the halls of Congress, so my question is: if they made this offer to one swing vote who turned it down, how many other swing votes did they also make it to who just took the money and never looked back?
We’ll never know. And that uncertainty as to who owns our representatives’ votes says volumes about why a lot of us feel the campaign financing system is seriously, seriously broken.