Quid Pro Quo Pros

A little influence peddling between friends. 

According to Wednesday’s Washington Post, “15 to 20 FBI agents and a handful of prosecutors” are already at work investigating the Clinton pardons. This doesn’t include all the activity up on Capitol Hill. Booking Rep. Dan Burton and Sen. Arlen Specter for pardon-related TV appearances must itself require staffs of several dozen souls.

It may all come to naught, since the crime of giving or taking a bribe—or even the lesser offense of paying a gratuity to a public official—is very hard to prove. If the criminal investigation does flame out, the critics of former President Clinton will insist that the technicalities and practical limits of the law shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the basically malodorous ethical nature of the transactions.

And they’ll be right. Did Denise Rich give vast sums to the Democratic Party, the Clinton Presidential Library, and Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign at least in part in the hope of influencing Bill Clinton to give her ex-husband a presidential pardon? Of course she did. Was Clinton influenced at least in part by that money in deciding to pardon Marc Rich? The pardon is an amazing coincidence if he wasn’t. Was Hugh Rodham exploiting his position as first brother-in-law by taking money from pardon seekers? The question answers itself. Was Clinton influenced by Rodham and by his own brother, Roger, in making his pardon decisions? Well, apparently not by Roger, since none of Roger Clinton’s supplicants actually got pardoned. But the investment in Rodham seems to have paid off.

On the other hand, there is something unreal about the moral outrage, especially in Washington, over the idea that an official act might have been influenced by money or that someone might be cashing in on his or her proximity to the powerful. The main reason official bribery is so hard to prove is that if the law wasn’t written narrowly—essentially requiring proof of an explicit beforehand quid pro quo—it would cover much of Washington’s day-to-day business.

The normal pardon procedure itself works in typical Washington fashion. If you want one, you’d better hire an attorney who specializes in pardons. He or she is likely to be a former employee of the Justice Department’s pardon office with many friends and contacts still there. And you’d better be able to afford it.

The very same Wednesday Washington Post that reported the growing pardon investigation had an article buried on Page 23 headlined “Taking a Right Turn on K Street.” It concerned how all the lobbying firms and trade associations are bulking up with Republicans—mostly former Hill staffers—to prepare for the new administration. Why companies hire former government officials and contribute money to incumbent politicians is as obvious as why Denise Rich gave money to the Clinton library. Yet this article—accurately reflecting the current understanding about such things—reported lobbyists’ preparations the way a Detroit newspaper might report automakers’ planning for the new model year.

The Post piece, by Juliet Eilperin, tells of Republican politicians pressuring lobbying firms to hire Republicans, including their own former employees, and quotes them openly bragging about how they’ve succeeded. “Just last week, Senate GOP Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) held a meeting with several lobbyists in which they agreed to come up with a list of candidates for several high-profile vacancies …” In other words, a U.S. senator solicited something of value—high-paying jobs for political soul mates—in implicit exchange for a promise to be more receptive to someone’s private agenda, or at least with an implicit threat to be less receptive unless the lobbying firms obliged, which amounts to the same thing.

Of course, what’s really remarkable here is that lobbying firms and organizations are now so established and powerful that important politicians are lobbying them. Meanwhile, some people are trying to make a criminal issue out of the possibility that Bill Clinton might have pardoned four Hasidic Jews in exchange for a promise to deliver the Hasidic community for his wife’s Senate campaign. Good grief, suppose it’s true: Buying and selling official actions in exchange for votes sounds more like a description of democracy than a criminal bribe.

There’s a distinction, I suppose, between using your official powers to solicit votes for yourself and using them to solicit votes for someone else (although in general, when a politician acts in ways that are intended to help other politicians attract votes it’s called party loyalty, not criminal bribery). There are distinctions among all these situations. But can these distinctions support the gap between high dudgeon at Bill Clinton and utterly uncontroversial acceptance of so much else? Not that I can see.

There are good practical reasons not to outlaw all exchanges of value for government action or, on the other hand, to shrug them all off as inevitable byproducts of democracy or original sin. These reasons include the noble legal principle that you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. But moral approval or disapproval needn’t be a matter of sharply drawn lines between right and wrong. It can be a spectrum of attitudes toward a spectrum of behavior. To expend all our outrage on the Clinton pardons and reserve none for Washington’s institutionalized culture of fund raising and influence peddling is to get the balance very wrong.