January 11, 2006

The pettiness of some congressional bribes

In following the Abramoff affair in the media and other past scandals, I was struck by something that Adam McKay gave voice to, and that is the relative smallness of the amounts used to bribe these congresspersons. It is not that the fact that some of these Congresspeople can be bribed but that their price is so low. According to the New York Times: "Alice Fisher, an assistant attorney general, said Mr. Abramoff offered up gifts to government officials that included an all-expense paid trip to Scotland "to play golf on a world-famous course, tickets and travel to the Super Bowl in Florida, tickets for concerts and other events in Washington, repeated and regular meals at his upscale restaurant, and campaign contributions.".

Dinners, concert and Super Bowl tickets, seem to me to be rather cheap to buy off a congressperson who earns $158,000 per year and in addition has enormous perks and extremely generous benefits. Why would anyone run the risk of being accused of taking bribes just for the sake of a steak dinner and whiskey or whatever it is they eat and drink at "upscale restaurants." Even if one was a glutton, how much could it cost? $100? $200? And the same for concert tickets. Surely they could afford it?

Maybe the campaign contributions were large. And the trip to Scotland could perhaps run into a couple of thousand dollars, but surely if they really, really wanted to play golf at a famous course in Scotland, they could have afforded to on their salaries.

I think that it cannot be just the amount of money involved, although money has to be a contributing factor. It must also be the fact that being bribed is used as a marker of the fact that you have power, and some people like others to think that they are important and have the sense of power over people and events.

I think that being offered a bribe must be gratifying to the ego of such people. I also suspect that being offered a bribe someone who you think is important (because they are rich and/or celebrities and/or powerful and/or well-connected) is more valuable than being offered the same bribe by just regular people.

For example, if I offered to take a congressperson out to dinner at a fancy restaurant in return for doing me a favor, he or she would probably laugh at me or be insulted or even have me arrested. But if Donald Trump took that congressperson out for the same dinner, he probably would be granted the favor. The fact that someone supposedly important is paying attention to you, is spending some of their precious time with you, is fawning over you, gives much greater weight to the occasion and makes you feel important too, and generous (and even indebted) towards them. So you do them the favor. You take the petty bribe.

There are some people who do take bribes having a significant value. People like the Republican congressman from San Diego Randy "Duke" Cunningham who resigned after being found to have taken millions from defense contractors to steer contracts their way. (See a video of a conversation between MSNBC talk show hosts Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough where the latter, who used to be a Congressman, is candid about the blatant quid pro quo that exists between lobbyist payoffs and the favors they get in return.) There are also people in lower profile occupations who enrich themselves by taking a large number of small bribes from many people. These people clearly see bribes as a revenue stream, a steady augmentation of their income.

But for the others in all professions and in all walks of life who take relatively small bribes despite being paid well, I suspect that ego and a feeling of power play a big role.

One occasionally hears or reads about college professors who are approached with bribes for grades. I cannot imagine that the bribes offered are significant enough to make it worthwhile in any tangible sense, so I suspect that if professor succumbs to this kind of temptation, he or she does so for the same reasons given above, because it appeals to his or her sense of importance.

In all my years of teaching in both Sri Lanka and the US, I am happy to report that have never been approached with anything that could be even remotely construed as a bribe. Whether this is because my students have very high ethical standards or they think that my power ego is too weak or unworthy of being flattered, I cannot say. But I am thankful all the same.

POST SCRIPT: Britain taking the lead?

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair is often derided as 'Bush's poodle,' eager to please his master by doing everything asked of him. But veteran journalist John Pilger points out that when it comes to criminalizing dissidents and opponents, Blair (and England) may be slightly ahead of the US.


Trackback URL for this entry is:


I enjoyed hearing your observations on WCPN yesterday, and was struck by your obvious intelligence and thoughtfulness. I'll be sure to visit this site frequently to read more. Keep up the fine work.

Posted by John Ettorre on January 11, 2006 05:10 PM