I would venture that I am in the majority that find it extremely difficult to distinguish between bribery, lobbying and campaign contributions. The elite would have us believe that there is a clear distinction between the two in that lobbying and campaign contributions are an effort to influence power and that this is critical to a functioning democracy and that bribery is an effort to buy power, and that this makes the world of difference.
Apparently the first popular campaign requiring significant funding in the history of the United States was organized in 1828 by Martin Van Buren to support the Democratic Party and the election of Andrew Jackson. As Federal and State governments increasingly began regulating and curtailing how businesses could ethically and effectively operate in the interests of the people, corporations and those with money began to target their extensive resources at politicians that were best aligned with their own interests.
Many attempts have been made in the past to address this perception that democracy is being corrupted by all this money flowing into the system. One can be forgiven for suggesting that the Democratic Party in particular that once championed the cause of the less privileged amongst us, now appear to be far more interested in following the money than the will of the majority.
The Federal Election Act of 1971 for example attempted to limit and restrict campaign contributions but much of it was overturned by the Supreme Court in the Buckley vs Valeo case (1976). The court ruled that limits on campaign contributions violated the First Amendment. Is it merely coincidental that this would have been a similar court that interpreted Roe vs Wade on limits to abortion as being unconstitutional?
The first amendment states.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
It is the last part that the Supreme Court interpreted as the right to use the resources at your disposal to lobby the government to address things that you do not like.
If one accepts this interpretation, then the distinction between legitimate lobbying and outright corruption appears to be the existence of a quid pro quo - “a specific intent to give or receive something of value in exchange for an official act. To buy power, rather than merely to influence it. This puts the onus on the prosecution to prove that the contribution resulted in a political action that would not have happened had the contribution not been made. This causal relationship is extremely difficult to prove and only appears to have been successful in a limited number of cases in the past. The further challenge facing the prosecution is the requirement to prove that the resultant action must be proven to be as a result of a prearrangement between contributor and the candidate.
The likelihood of proving a quid pro quo is reduced when there is an absence of evidence of prearrangement and coordination between the candidate and the contributor. The emphasis here is clearly that the courts will err on the side of the presumption of innocence until the prosecution has established the presence of corruption beyond reasonable doubt.
Now this can impact one personally. The company I was working for in the USA at the time needed preferential access to a resource that the federal government had total control of. It was therefore deemed necessary by my organization to lobby with the government to try to influence them that my company’s chosen course of action was in the interests of the American people. As an employee it was clearly my duty to represent our position and was more than willing to do so. The challenge came when it was realized that my company could not make direct contributions to an appropriate Political Action Committee (PAC) as contributions had to be from individuals not corporations. My corporation then instituted a process where an appropriate contribution could be deducted from our paychecks every month, all we had to do was check a box. We were assured that this was clearly voluntary, but most felt rightly or wrongly that if they did not tick the box, their careers would be negatively impacted. I did not tick the box as I did not believe that the proposed action was in America’s interest, I felt that the whole PAC process amounted to a bribe, and the process used by my company amounted to coercion. I am pleased to report that it does appear that my fears were unfounded as I suffered no apparent adverse treatment as a result of my chosen course of action. Does the fact that others were more compliant because that did not feel they had any choice weigh in on the discussion or is that merely a misinterpretation of what is actually going on here?
Bottom line is I’m still working on trying to clarify the distinction between legitimate influencing through a contribution which ultimately leads to a smoother running society and a bribe in which an individual profits at the expense of the community. I fear my remaining time on this Earth might be insufficient to be able to successfully resolve this issue.