We Have All Been Here Before

Article 2 of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon charged him with:

Using the powers of the office of President of the United States . . . in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in disregard of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has repeatedly engaged in conduct violating the constitutional rights of citizens, impairing the due and proper administration of justice and the conduct of lawful inquiries, or contravening the laws governing agencies of the executive branch and the purposed of these agencies.

Among the particulars was this:

This conduct has included one or more of the following:

  1. He has, acting personally and through his subordinates and agents, endeavoured to obtain from the Internal Revenue Service, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, confidential information contained in income tax returns for purposed not authorized by law, and to cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be intitiated [sic] or conducted in a discriminatory manner.

Today, the Washington Post has reported that:

President Trump has personally pushed U.S. Postmaster General Megan Brennan to double the rate the Postal Service charges Amazon.com and other firms to ship packages, according to three people familiar with their conversations, a dramatic move that probably would cost these companies billions of dollars.

I am certain that Trump’s apologists will seize on the phrase “and other firms” to argue that Trump was only attempting to push a policy that would reduce the federal government’s deficit.

Right.

Getting rid of the “Johnson Amendment”

So what does Donald Trump mean when he says he wants to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment”?

Trump always talks about “churches,” but the proviso, inserted in the tax code in 1954, forbids all tax exempt non-profits (organized under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)3, and therefore referred to generically as 501(c)3 organizations) from contributing to political campaigns.

If the law were changed to exempt churches only, the courts would have to decide whether than created an unconstitutional “establishment of religion,” but it doesn’t require a law degree to see that allowing tax-exempt churches to attack tax-exempt Planned Parenthood by running campaigns against politicians who take positions favorable to reproductive rights, but forbidding Planned Parenthood from defending itself, would be grossly unfair.

Moreover, churches – unlike most other non-profits – aren’t required to disclose their donors. So allowing them to serve as campaign vehicles would not only convert them into tax-deductible super-PACs, it would allow unlimited amounts of hidden money to come into politics. (Citizens United and its progeny have already severely weakened disclosure rules.) Disclosure has been, until now, regarded as an invaluable protection against corruption. If Trump gets his way, any individual, privately-held corporation, partnership, or LLC could purchase influence with unlimited, undisclosed, tax-deductible campaign contributions simply by laundering them through a church, or even a fake “church” organized solely as a pass-through for bribes. (Again, for religious-freedom reasons, the IRS is very wary of deciding that a group calling itself a church isn’t really a church: the New Testament rule “wherever two or three are gathered” about covers it.)

But wait! It gets worse. If churches can gather money without disclosing their donors – and obviously that degree of privacy protection is required for the free exercise of religion – and spend that money to run political campaigns, then the market is open for foreign as well as domestic corruption. The Russian, Chinese, Saudi, and Iranian governments would all, predictably, either find congregations already recognized by the IRS to use as front groups or incorporate new ones. Of course a group organized as a mosque might not be able to wield much influence without stirring up opposition, but nothing bars the Saudis or the Iranians from paying some stooges to set up a fake Baptist church. Nor is an outfit organized as a church for IRS purposes have the word “church” (synagogue, mosque, temple, whatever) in its name; many people would spot “Society of Friends” as meaning Quakers, but you and I could start a group tomorrow called “Truth Tellers,” incorporate it as a church, and then run political ads with the trailer “This message brought to you by the Truth Tellers.”

So, like most of Trump’s ideas, this one reduces mostly to corruption and the sacrifice of American sovereignty to foreign – especially Russian – influence. And of course that won’t keep the tame preachers of the Christian Right from backing him all the way.

 

 

House ethics oversight: What just happened?

1. The House Republican conference, in secret, voted overwhelmingly to dismantle ethics oversight so Members could more easily get away with corruption.
2. Bob Goodlatte and his accomplices knew this attempt was shameful; otherwise they wouldn’t have tried to do it with surprise and stealth.
3. The House GOP leadership claimed to be against it but was entirely willing to let it happen until the public outcry got too loud.
4. Trump’s flack endorsed it and even said that the House GOP had a “mandate” to do such things. (Why not? Didn’t Trump promise to “fill the swamp”?)
5. Trump himself didn’t speak out until the public blowback become overwhelming.
6. Even then, Trump didn’t say protecting crooks in the House was a bad idea. He even endorsed the false claim that the existing process was somehow “unfair.” Trump just said that he’d prefer that the House Republicans do other awful things first.
7. Nonetheless, the press is giving Trump credit he hasn’t earned.                    
8. The proposal has been pulled for the moment, but the leadership is still committed to doing something later. Whatever that is won’t be good.                
9. The whole affair illustrates the culture of corruption that will permeate the government for the next four years, unless a wave election ends the Republican House majority in 2018.
10. But it also illustrates that pushback can work. Keep pushing!

Sarah Chayes on kleptocracy as a security issue

When corruption stops being a defect and starts being the whole point of the system, you’ve got trouble, and the basis for a violent insurrection.

Now that the teaching quarter is over, I can get to my piled-up “must-read” list.

Sarah Chayes’s Thieves of State is high on that list. My students doing their master’s project on income maintenance in Afghanistan found it invaluable.

Fortunately, today I was treated to the low-cost substitute for reading a whole book: Chayes gave a talk at UCLA. She wasn’t as funny as she was on The Daily Show, but the analysis was pretty damned compelling.

I’ve always made fun of “corruption” as an academic topic because of its excessive focus on relatively minor cash payoffs, to  the exclusion of other forms of rent-seeking. That’s not an objection that anyone could raise to Chaye’s presentation. Even the talk was too complex to be well-summarized in a blog post, but these seemed to be the key points:

1. The idea of corruption as a malfunction in governance due to poor institutional design misses the point with respect to full-on kleptocracy, which is an increasingly widespread form of government (Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, Ukraine, Pakistan, Nigeria). In a real kleptocracy, stealing isn’t something that happens in the course of governing; rather, governing is a means of stealing, and what look like bugs in the system are in fact features from the viewpoint of the people running it.

2. Insurgency, whether it takes a religious form or not, is often motivated primarily by corruption.

3. Petty extortion always involves insult as well as financial injury, and sometimes involves physical injury. That makes people mad; sometimes mad enough to want to kill a cop. When someone from ISIS or Boko Haram (or, I would have added, Sendero Luminoso) hands such a person a gun and tells him that cop-killing is not only justifiable but is a religious or patriotic duty, he may well take up the suggestion.

4. In a real government, taxes are paid by ordinary people and businesses to the central government, and then sent back down to officials and contractors who do the work and to citizens and businesses in the form of services and benefits. In a kleptocracy, lower-level officials exact bribes and extortion payments from citizens and businesses, and pass the money up the chain.

5. Sometimes there’s a single fount of corruption. Sometimes there are cooperating kleptocratic networks. Sometimes those networks compete rather than cooperating, in which case politics becomes a blood sport.

6. Lots of Westerners shrug and say, “Well, that’s the way business is done over there; it’s in the culture.” But no one Chayes has talked to living under kleptocracy has that viewpoint; they’re all outraged.

7. The free flow of international capital, currency convertibility, and the sale of state assets to private parties have increased the opportunities for, and benefits of, massive corruption. A Soviet official could have a dacha, but not much of a Swiss bank account, since the ruble wasn’t actually worth anything. A Russian kleptocrat can have a bank account in London and a $20 million apartment in New York.

8. Ignoring corruption and governance in order to deal with “security issues” – or, worse, making corrupt payments to kleptocrats to keep them on our side (in Iraq or Afghanistan, for example) gets the causal arrows wrong. Corruption and government are security issues, perhaps the paramount ones.

9. Since the money winds up in the West, Western institutions, including governments, have both culpability for allowing the theft to continue and some capacity to tamp it down.

10. A serious attack on kleptocracy would involved the same sort of careful network diagrams that characterize counter-terrorist work. And it would use visa denial and in rem seizure of assets in the U.S. as systematic techniques.

11. Kleptocracy can happen here.

The talk included lots of interesting historical material (including an analysis of Luther’s 95 Theses as an anti-corruption tract) and several terrific illustrative events. Here’s my favorite. Several months before Boko Haram kidnapped 300 girls, the head of the Nigerian Central Bank – brought in to bail out the banking system in the 2009 financial crisis – discovered that $20 billion had gone missing from the state’s oil revenues. When he announced that he was going to examine banking records to figure out who had stolen the money and where had landed, the President of Nigeria fired him.

Chayes then asked how many in the audience knew about the kidnappings (all of us) and how many about the theft of $20B an the firing of the central banker (three out of about 75, at a law school talk advertised as being about corruption). [No, I wasn’t among the three.]

The punchline, from Chayes’s viewpoint: when the President of the United States offered the President of Nigeria sympathy, and aid against Boko Haram, in the wake of the kidnapping, no one asked about the $20 billion, or about who had stolen the money that was supposed to pay for the bullets that the Nigerian soldiers fighting Boko Haram didn’t have. Terrorism is punished, or at least is the source of serious outrage; systemic corruption is shrugged at.

Sounds like a problem we ought to do something about. And – for the first time – I now think that there is something to be done about it, over and above my usual prescription of raising the salaries of cops and other civil servants so they can afford to be honest.

Rush to judgment on the Rick Perry indictment

Yes, Rick Perry was exercising his lawful powers. So was Richard Nixon in ordering the Saturday Night Massacre.

I don’t know whether Gov. Rick Perry is guilty of anything, or – assuming he is – whether the special prosecutor has the goods to prove it, let alone whether the right-leaning Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would sustain such a conviction. (Since Perry isn’t an innocent person on Death Row, the court will tend to give him all the breaks.)

I do know that most of what has been written about the case since the indictment has been nonsense, with Blue and Red pundits competing to see who can say the nastiest things about the prosecutor.  See Simon Maloy and Kevin Drum on the Hack Gap.)

Worse, everyone seems to be ignoring the obvious fact that, even if Perry can’t be convicted of a crime, his conduct in this case ought to disqualify him for the Presidency.  Continue reading “Rush to judgment on the Rick Perry indictment”

The banana Republicans

Latest from the Banana Republican Party: bribing a Democratic State Senator in VA to quit.

If they can’t offer policies that a majority of voters will support without relentless brainwashing, they free up the billionaire beneficiaries of the policies they actually offer to help them buy elections.

If buying elections won’t give them a majority, they rig the districting so they can hold a minority of seats with a minority of votes.

If they can’t win even in gerrymandered districts, they try to keep Democrats from voting.

If they still lose, they resort to outright bribery.

In the latest case, they offered a Democratic state senator in Virginia – whose vote resulted in a tied chamber, giving the Lieutenant Governor the deciding vote – a cushy job for himself and a judgeship for his daughter if he’d resign, giving the GOP 20-19 majority.

Similar deals have been done recently in New York and Washington State, though in those cases the bribes were legislative leadership positions rather than external jobs.

I can confidently predict that a not a single elected Republican, and few if any Red-team pundits, will speak out against this grossly corrupt deal.* If the state AG or the U.S. Attorney decide that it’s a prosecutable quid pro quo, Fox News and the National Review will howl about the “criminalization of policy differences.”

“Puckett” deserves to enter the language alongside “Quisling.”

The appalling content of its policies aside – the latest dirty trick is part of an effort to deny medical coverage to the working poor –  the modern Republican Party is a threat to the principles of republican government. Even when they’re not torturing, they lie, they cheat, and they steal.

Footnote And note the way the Washington Post uses the morally neutral “outmaneuver” to cover the payment and acceptance of a bribe. Did the Communists “outmaneuver” Jan Masaryk? Did the House of Guise “outmaneuver” the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day?

 * Update Ed Morrissey of Hot Air, who’s about as Red as they come, expresses his disgust:

Virginia Republicans are claiming that the jobs for Puckett and his daughter are unrelated to his resignation and the sudden seizure of control of the state Senate, but only their publicists will buy that. They undid the results of an election and made someone a judge for a payoff. Even those who both support their policy goals and oppose McAuliffe’s tactics have to admit that this debases politics and public policy.

Good for Morrissey!

 

 

How-are-the-mighty-fallen! dep’t: Bob McDonnell and the corruption that flows from inequality

The sad part about the McDonnell scandal is that the Governor of Virginia needed a Rolex as a status symbol.

I won’t pretend to be sad about the indictment of former VA Governor Bob McDonnell on corruption charges. If I have any compassion to spare, I’ll use it on the children of poor families in Virginia denied medical coverage by McDonnell’s refusal to accept Federal money to expand Medicaid. I hope McDonnell and Chris Christie share a prison cell and come out dedicated advocates for correctional reform.

But there’s one deeply, deeply twisted element to the story that ought to worry all of us. McDonnell was the Governor of Virginia, the successor of Jefferson. And he wanted a Rolex watch.

Now, I can understand a salesman who wants a Rolex to show that he’s a successful salesman. Money is how salespeople keep score, and without expensive wristwatches and suchlike how is anyone going to be able to tell a successful salesman from a wannabee? But if you’re the #$!@ing Governor of Virginia, what on earth do you need a Rolex for? As a status symbol? Isn’t t he title “Governor” pretty good status indicator?

One of the many problems that flows from increasing inequality of income and wealth is that the standards of the rich become the ruling standards. Mrs. McDonnell obviously felt that she would be disgraced if she appeared at her husband’s inaugural ball in the sort of dress an honest public servant’s wife could afford, when all the fundraisers’ wives – to say nothing of the female fundraisers – would be wearing a large fraction of the median annual household income. Does that excuse her committing extortion to get an Oscar de la Renta dress? Of course not. But it testifies to a corruption of manners that goes far deeper than corruption in office.

The extreme wealth of the rich is as great a public menace as the poverty of the poor, and great wealth is a greater problem than high income. Some of the way that money is made is destructive, and much of the way it is spent is even more destructive.

It would help if, at official functions such as inaugurations, our elected leaders and their families discouraged conspicuous waste among their guests and refrained from it themselves.

My $15 wristwatch from Target keeps excellent time, and – to my eye – looks pretty damned elegant.

wristwatch

But if I were a surgeon or an investment banker, I couldn’t afford to wear it. That, I submit, is a problem. And one part of the solution is for the President of the United States to wear, and let it be known that he wears, a cheap wristwatch. Not as important as restoring the estate tax, of course, but it’s a start, and it could be done tomorrow.

Update Lots of interesting ideas in comments. It’s certainly right that inequality increases the means of bribors as well as the vulnerability of bribees, but that’s a different point. It’s certainly wrong that status anxiety is simply “envy and spite,” though it might easily be a cause of envy and spite.

The most important point raised in commments that was missed in the original post is that one’s perceived need for display wealth depends strongly on one’s social group. If you hang out with rich folks, you look bad if you don’t have rich folks’ sort of stuff. The dominance of money in politics requires politicians to hang out with rich folks; otherwise they lose the “money primary” that filters the candidates in every election.

To apply this to my own case: If I were (which God forfend!) a dean rather than a professor, it would be professional malpractice for me not to drive a more expensive car and not to wear fancier clothes. And I doubt it would take long for my tastes to adjust to my behavior, to the point where I would feel ill-dressed in what I now regard as my go-to-meeting getup.

Yes, some people have tougher moral fiber than others: that’s a personal characteristic. How much strain is put on that fiber is a social question. Our current system increases the strain. That doesn’t keep me from disapproving of the McDonnells, but it does lead me to ask what we could do to decrease the pressures they felt and the pressures others similarly placed feel. That’s one reason the Clinton Global Foundation, for all its good works, creeps me out.

Journalistic query: Who got hurt in Ft. Lee?

Who got hurt when Chris Christie decided to gridlock Ft. Lee as political payback?

When a politician calls a scandal involving himself “sensationalized,” you know he’s in deep yoghurt. When he says “mistakes were made,” the passive voice is a tell for near-panic. When he starts firing subordinates, that means he knows he’s near the edge of the cliff. And when he says he wants to “turn the page,” it’s a good bet the story is far from over.

The New York Times story on the Chris Christie/Ft. Lee gridlock story includes all four of those markers of a major affair in the making.

[For those of you joining us late, the background is that the Mayor of Ft. Lee, NJ, a Democrat refused to endorse Gov. Soprano for re-election, and suddenly, without warning, two of the three lanes on the on-ramp from Ft. Lee to the George Washington Bridge were closed during the first four days of school in September, gridlocking the city for four days. Fortnately, the mayor doesn’t seem to own a horse. See the scorching email from the Executive Director of the Port Authority to his subordinates unearthed by the Wall Street Journal.]

The punchline is that the Governor wants to know whether Ft. Lee should permanently lose access to the bridge, which seems to be a not-too-subtle way of telling Ft. Lee officials that even worse things could happen to them if they get too friendly with investigators.

What the story lacks so far is the voices of the victims. You can’t tie up traffic for four days in a town of 35,000 people without someone getting really and truly hosed. It’s not very likely that anyone actually died in an ambulance, or waiting for one (the death rate in a town that size is somewhere short of one per day), but I strongly suspect that there was more dramatic harm than kids being late for school and parents late for work. If I were running a journalist enterprise – or the DNC – I’d want to put a bunch of effort into shoe-leather reporting.

If you’re wondering how much damage this sort of story, properly exploited, can do to a national candidate, ask President Dukakis about Willie Horton, or the water quality in Boston Harbor.

Footnote The backstory about the first Port Authority official to resign is that he’s an old friend of the Governor’s who ran an anonymous political blog back when Christie was U.S. Attorney. The blog was, the Times reports, “noted for scoops from the United States attorney’s office.” I wonder whether the Inspector General of the Justice Department, or the Office of Professional Responsibility, has scanned those “scoops” for violations of Rule 6(e), which forbids the release of grand jury information?

Yes, Chris Christie is a thug

Chris Christie and the Ft. Lee lane closing: looks like a Soprano, sounds like a Soprano, acts like a Soprano. Lies about it.

Looks like Tony Soprano, sounds like Tony Soprano, acts like Tony Soprano.

When the Mayor of Fort Lee refused to endorse him for re-election, Christie had his henchman in the Port Authority close the on-ramp from Ft. Lee to the George Washington Bridge. Then he and his buddies lied about it.

If you think about it, that’s much nastier than garden-variety corruption of the kind Christie engage in as United States Attorney, when he used deferred prosecution agreements to funnel money from corporate lawbreakers to his buddies – including another prosecutor who had declined to indict Christie’s brother – in return for not pressing criminal charges.

Christie as the GOP nominee for 2016? Bring it on!