Strange Bedfellow

In Search of Cronygate

It’s scandalous there. So why isn’t it scandalous here?

You probably haven’t heard about the latest scandal to rock Britain. The American media have ignored it. And that is part of the story.

The British press has named it Cronygate. The gist of Cronygate is this: A reporter for the Observer newspaper, posing as a representative of U.S. businesses, approached lobbyists with close ties to Tony Blair’s government to see what they were peddling. One of the lobbyists was a callow and garrulous young man named Derek Draper who had been a close aide to Blair and his deputies. Draper boasted that, in exchange for an extortionate fee, he could: arrange lunches at 10 Downing St. and meetings with top ministers, help the client get appointed to a government advisory board, and obtain early drafts of parliamentary reports related to the client’s industry.

The press was apoplectic. For a week, the major dailies bannered Cronygate: It marked the Blair government’s “fall from grace”; it marked “Blair’s worst week.” Tory leader William Hague flayed Blair in the House of Commons. Blair declared that “we must be pure,” and Labor leaders floated a proposal to ban contact between lobbyists and top government officials. Cronygate overshadowed not only the violence in Northern Ireland but also the long-awaited meeting between Prince William and Camilla Parker Bowles.

As a scandal, Cronygate is inadequate in several ways. First, if you start from the premise that there are lobbyists, it is unsurprising to discover that what they do is lobby. (A famous actress caught working as a prostitute is news. A prostitute caught working as a prostitute is a tautology.) Second, unless young Draper is unlike any other lobbyist in history, he was exaggerating his ability to infiltrate the government. Third, what Derek Draper promised is nothing that former Republican Chairman Haley Barbour doesn’t do a dozen times before lunch (for Microsoft, among other clients). And it is nothing that would tax Clinton pal Vernon Jordan’s youngest associate.

The American press has ignored Cronygate, in other words, because to Americans the behavior is not scandalous. It’s not that many Americans would actually approve of what amounts to trading money for influence (or access or whatever you call it) with the government. It’s that we’ve decided to live with it. We don’t get shocked by it, and we don’t have laws against it.

In part, the overwrought reaction of the British media reflects their irritation with the holier-than-thou Blair and their impatience, more than a year into his premiership, to catch him out at something. They have longed to show that Blair’s New Laborites are as scheming and money-grubbing as the Old Tories were. But much of the fuss reflects genuine surprise and offense. Lobbying is a smaller and less familiar industry in Britain than it is in the United States. The capacity for outrage hasn’t (yet) withered.

But wait. The lesson is not that Americans are more cynical and apathetic than the Brits about influence peddling (how marvelous it is that they still rage at the rent-seeking and small-bore sleaziness we take for granted …). It’s not that simple. One reason the lobbying culture is bigger in Washington than in London is the American separation of powers. A company wishing to influence the government must work the executive branch and butter up both the majority and minority parties in the House and the Senate. In Britain’s elected dictatorship, lobbying is limited because virtually all power resides in a very few people at the top of the majority party.

And the British are not so pure. For example, the American press can manage to generate a fair amount of resentment over members of Congress accepting campaign contributions from corporations–though not enough resentment, apparently, to reform the system. But in Britain, it is actually legal and accepted for Members of Parliament themselves to be paid lobbyists. There are explanations: MPs are poorly paid, and those without additional government posts have almost no power anyway. But the fact remains: The British people’s elected representatives can be paid specifically to influence legislation–and no one cares.

Another example: In Britain there are no limits on the size of political contributions and no requirements that contributions be made public. And corporations and unions may make political contributions directly out of their treasuries (as opposed to raising the money from employees and members). In the post-Watergate United States, it is unthinkable that people would shrug off large secret contributions by corporations to the ruling party. The British probably don’t care for it either, to the extent they think about it. But they don’t make a scandal of it.

Illustration by Peter Kuper

So which society is more cynical and decadent and which more idealistic and pure? No, that’s not the point. The point is that what becomes a scandal–and what a society chooses to outlaw–is a bit random. It may depend more on morally neutral cultural factors, or historical accidents, than on any moral or practical calculus about different types of behavior.

This column, as my first in the Strange Bed, is free of history. It is also, needless to say, free of any taint of bias or corruption. Young and pure, it can still aspire to moral clarity. Also modest, it will not attempt to solve all the problems relating to campaign finance, lobbying, and other activities that allow money to buy influence in politics. What it can do is suggest some general principles.

Principle No. 1 is the easy-to-forget point that money shouldn’t be able to buy influence with a democratic government. It’s wrong. The world would be a better place if government decisions were made without reference to who has written a check or who has hired a politician’s former aide. The people who profit from these arrangements should find another way to make a living.

But you don’t outlaw every activity of which you morally disapprove. Trying to prevent all exchanges of money for political influence would be costly (in terms of liberty as well as of more mundane considerations) and futile. Half measures are inevitable. You can, though, aspire to half measures that do two things. First, they should deliver maximum moral benefit at minimum practical cost. And second, you want your half measures to be reasonably consistent on an absolute scale of morality. This notion of consistency is what’s violated by Britain’s outrage about lobbying and indifference about campaign contributions and America’s opposite treatment of both.