Bribery by Another Name; Time to Eliminate Private Money from Political Campaigns
Byline: Gordon S. Black, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Between 1850 and 1900, nearly every large city - and some states - in the United States came under the absolute control of po- litical machines, in which the boss and his henchmen all but eliminated competition from elections for public office. In New York City, for example, newspapers estimated that the Tweed Ring, named for its boss, William M. Tweed, stole more than $500 million of the taxpayers' money. This same pattern was replicated nearly everywhere.
The problem of machine politics and political bosses was created by the rapid growth of cities during the Industrial Revolution, when that growth demanded increases in all kinds of public services and created a pool of public-employee labor that could be used in politics to control voting, registration and the loyalty of immigrants, to whom the machine often dispensed services and favors. Basically, political bosses learned how to use the most powerful resource of the politics of the day - government laborers - to seize unchallenged control over governments, through which they could rob the taxpayers with impunity. Corruption was rampant; graft was the rule of day, and the politicians got rich from labor and from taxes on the middle class.
The problem became so severe that it produced the Progressive Revolt, which swept across America to slay the beast of corrupt political machines. The Progressive movement was composed of a diverse group of strange bedfellows - outraged journalists who often provided the ammunition; businessmen who were tired of paying monopoly prices for the services they required; religious leaders who recognized the fundamental immorality of the practices of the machines; and the growing middle class, which was being taxed to pay for the outrageous, ill-gotten incomes of the bosses. It was a peculiar coalition of what today would be called liberals and conservatives banding together to preserve the democracy that was taken from them. When the movement started, no one would have believed it could succeed on the scale that it did. The movement took the enormous moral courage of many people, some of whom were ruined and some of whom were murdered, to restore the democracy that we enjoy today in our cities.
We are faced with a new problem, with a different origin, but with the same corrupting influence over our politics. This time, it is occurring with the same impunity at the state and national levels of government. The problem is caused by a political class, called incumbents (of both parties), who have converted the campaign process into a system of unparalleled political corruption whereby special interests support the incumbents in return for enormous benefits in terms of subsidies and other preferences. If I pay a member of Congress $100,000 for a political favor, the transaction is called bribery, and it is illegal. If I give a member of Congress $100,000 for his re-election campaign and he does me a favor afterward, that is perfectly legal, even though the voters know full well that it simply is bribery by another name.
Because the incumbents of both political parties steadfastly refuse to raise taxes to pay for their bribery, they have made it public policy to run up massive deficits and unfunded liabilities that are transferred to our children and grandchildren to pay. …