Dynamics of Legislative Corruption
Everybody is talkin' these days about . . . graft, but nobody thinks of drawin' the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There's all the difference in the world between the two.
According to George Washington Plunkitt, the Tammany Hall leader who dominated New York City politics in the early part of the twentieth century, dishonest graft consists in the "blackmailin' [of] gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people." Plunkitt did not approve of this and other familiar forms of extortion and bribery; no one makes big fortunes that way. Honest graft is another matter, however. Plunkitt saw nothing wrong with using inside information to make a personal profit on a sale of land to the city. "I might sum up the whole thing by sayin': 'I seen my opportunities and took 'em.'"1
An authoritative political dictionary assures us that honest graft is "no longer considered permissible."2 Certainly the conduct that Plunkitt commended would be illegal at any level of government today. But the essential distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft, redefined for modern sensibilities, is alive and well. It survives as a distinction between legal and illegal corruption, embodied in the difference between a campaign contribution and an outright bribe. Taking money from wealthy contributors who expect a legislator to use his power for their benefit looks a lot like accepting a bribe, and may have much the same effect. That is why many critics of the American system of campaign finance regard it as a form of corruption.3 But unlike bribery, the practice of accepting