In a recent Huffington Post piece, Carl Pope from the Sierra Club calls out the American Petroleum Institute for forming a political committee that will contribute to congressional candidates. What does Pope find so damning? According to API’s executive vice president for government affairs:
"At the end of the day, our mission is trying to influence the policy debate."
This, to Pope, is completely unacceptable. He states that “[i]f API is making its campaign contributions to influence the policy debate, then it is engaging in bribery.”
Bribery? That’s a strong word. If Pope is right, then all sorts of things that people legitimately do to influence public policy should be considered bribery as well. Every election season, millions of people make campaign contributions. They do it so that candidates they agree with get elected and pass laws and policies they favor. Are all of these people guilty of a federal crime?
Or what about the actions of legislators themselves? On the floor of the House and Senate every day, Congressmen “horse trade” by agreeing to vote for one another’s preferred legislation. In the recent health-care debate, congressional leaders scrounged for “yes” votes by making the “Cornhusker Kickback” and the “
There is no way that anyone can take API’s relatively innocuous statement and, with a straight face, argue that it amounts to bribery. The federal bribery statute says that “[w]hoever directly or indirectly, corruptly gives . . . anything of value to any public official with intent to influence any official act shall be fined under this title . . . or imprisoned for not more than fifteen years.”
So, for there to be bribery, there must be something “corruptly” given. Without any evidence of an actual quid pro quo, a legal campaign contribution is just that: legal. It’s certainly not corrupt. All API has said is that it wants to influence the policy debate, which is true of everyone who makes contributions or speaks out during elections. The Sierra Club is a good example.
If speaking out and seeking redress from the government is bribery, then the entire American system of representative democracy is corrupt to its core. There are certainly many things the government does that it should not, and it is not surprise that a lot of Americans line up and ask the government for various goodies. To end this groveling, we must reduce the government’s power to hand out goodies in the first place. It is emphatically not to say that certain disfavored speakers should be silenced. A government of unlimited power that listens only to certain select groups is a recipe for disaster.