Political gifts won’t go away with McDonnell

Illustration by Dan Nacu.

Daniel Parker
Guest Columnist

Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s political gift scandal is just another day in the decades of legalized bribery in American politics. Even if McDonnell is found guilty, the problem of political gifts will go nowhere, until the public pressures for reform.

Washington will never make meaningful reform without real pressure from constituents. Why would anyone elected be that much of a masochist to ban his own free stuff? Who in their right mind is going to ban gifts to amusement parks for his family or limits the amount of free bottles of champagne they receive for schmoozing?

When McDonnell fell deep into debt, he received financial assistance from former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. But these generous loans of up to $135,000 came with strings attached. Now McDonnell and his wife are facing federal corruption charges.

The former governor’s defense rests on the idea that everyone is taking political gifts similar to him. While not every congressional official is driving around in a Ferrari provided by Big Pharma, they all are certainly getting wined and dined by donors for favors.

Jack Abramoff, a famous lobbyist arrested for fraud and conspiracy, was released from jail in 2010 and began a career writing on the corruption he took part in during the early 2000s. In a “60 Minutes” interview, he boasted about how he felt he had control of one-third of Capitol Hill during his stay at Congress.

Abramoff claimed to have spent $1.3 million each year for favors for Congress. Abramoff recalled in an interview that politicians he once gave gifts to pointed the finger at him during his prosecution. After he was sent to jail, it was business as usual back in Washington. The only significance of his arrest was a watered-down contribution reform bill, that Abramoff picked apart later in the interview.

The solution to fixing Washington’s corruption is fairly straight forward. Abramoff proposes that political gift giving by special interests be banned. Perhaps the most corrupting influence proposed for banning is Congress members becoming lobbyists. After all, no one is going to be rich as a congressman; however, doing enough favors to land yourself in a lobbying firm will ensure your wealth.

I’m resting on the belief that McDonnell’s public humiliation could stir up some mass fear, that the next time an elected official gets bathed in lavish gifts for a favor, he will wince, having flashbacks of his caviar dinner last night and the looming threat of the media destroying his political career.

Washington will never make meaningful changes until the public forces them to. McDonnell’s arrest should be inspiring public outrage to get more legislation passed to stop it.

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