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When was Bribery Legalized in America?
Why won’t Congress act? Because they’re on the take. Courtesy of Citizens United and its predecessors voted into law by five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court…
“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.” — Frédéric Bastiat, Economic sophisms, 2nd series (1848)
Virtually every crisis America is facing right now is either caused or exacerbated by the corruption of our nation’s third branch of government.
A branch of government — the Supreme Court — that this week laid out one of the most absurd charades in its history, pretending to do something about their own corruption and utter lack of ethics with a sham “Code of Conduct.”
They are responsible for our crises of gun violence, the drug epidemic, homelessness, political gridlock, our slow response to the climate emergency, a looming crisis for Social Security and Medicare, the situation on our southern border, even the lack of affordable drugs, insurance, and healthcare.
All track back to a handful of Supreme Court justices who’ve sold their votes to billionaires in exchange for extravagant vacations, luxury yachts and motorhomes, private jet travel, speaking fees, homes, tuition, and participation in exclusive clubs and billionaire networks that bar the rest of us from entry.
— America is the only country in the world that terrorizes its children with active shooter drills in schools, the only country where the leading cause of childhood deaths is bullets, and the only country where mass shootings are a near-everyday occurrence.
Why do Republicans in Congress block every effort to do something and save America’s children’s lives? Because they’re owned with big money contributions and campaign spending by the NRA and gun manufacturers.
And why is that legal? Because five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court — several already on the take themselves, although nobody knew it at the time — ruled in Citizens United that, “[W]e now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”
— The Sackler family spent years making billions by addicting and ultimately killing hundreds of thousands of Americans, but to this day not a single member of that psychopathic family has seen the inside of a prison cell. Why? Because they bought off multiple politicians, including (according to reporting from The Intercept) the Republican Attorneys General Association and the Democratic Governors Association.
There was a time when these bribes — and the opioid deaths they cover up — would have been a felony; today they’re routine because corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court legalized political bribery.
— Why isn’t America reacting more rapidly to the extreme weather events that are killing Americans from coast-to-coast (and in Hawaii and Alaska)? Why does almost every Republican in Congress refuse to acknowledge basic climate science and instead works to maintain the $600 billion annual subsidies for, and massive profits of, the fossil fuel industry?
Because they’re on the take from that very industry. Courtesy of Citizens United and its predecessors written into law by five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court.
— Medicare is being ripped off to the tune of over $140 billion a year, and millions of Americans who bought into the Medicare Advantage privatized insurance scam are routinely denied care, because the insurance industry was able to help write George W. Bush’s 2003 legislation “modernizing” Medicare.
Why does Congress tolerate this? Because they’re on the take from that very industry. Courtesy of Citizens United and its predecessors voted into law by corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court.
— Cancer-causing pesticides, food additives, PFAS chemicals, and microplastics lace our environment and food supply, creating a cancer crisis unknown in Europe where these are all banned or tightly regulated. Why here? Because Congress refuses to act as long as the industries creating these problems can legally continue their campaign donations and other bribes.
— Republicans in Congress (and Nikki Haley) are pushing hard for a new “Catfood Commission” to figure out ways to cut Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age. Speaker Johnson announced yesterday afternoon that he’s creating the commission over the Thanksgiving holiday and they’ll hold their first hearings in two weeks.
Why would they defy an American public that loves the program just to avoid asking billionaires to pay the same Social Security tax rate as bus drivers?
Because they’re on the take from the billionaires who don’t want to pay their taxes, and the banks that hope the Catfood Commission will develop “Social Security Advantage” as a way of privatizing the system. Courtesy of Citizens United and its predecessors voted into law by corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court.
— At the same time the pharmaceutical industry is enjoying the largest profits in its history, millions of Americans are cutting pills in half or even going without essential medications because they can’t afford the price-gouging that’s routine in the drug business.
Why won’t Congress act? Because they’re on the take from that very industry. Courtesy of Citizens United and its predecessors voted into law by corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court.
— Every other developed country in the world has figured out how to give their students quality public school and free or inexpensive college educations. Here in America, private for-profit and religious schools are getting hundreds of billions from Republican-controlled Red states, decimating our public schools, while tens of millions of young people can’t start families or small businesses because they’re crushed by student debt that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the developed world.
Why does America tolerate this? Because the banking industry is making billions in profits off student loans every month and shares some of that lucre with members of Congress, a process legalized by five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court.
— A private for-profit prison industry intervenes in every effort to update our immigration and asylum systems as well as attempts to refocus our criminal justice system toward rehabilitation. They can do this by buying off mostly Republican politicians because corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court legalized political bribery.
— Homelessness stalks America as rent prices skyrocket while more homes remain empty — investment properties bought by foreign and Wall Street speculators — than there are homeless people in our nation. Other countries have largely solved their homelessness crises, but here in America all systemic efforts are paralyzed by big money from the real estate and hedge fund industries.
This is legal because corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court sold out our country to the wealthy interests that have been courting them since the Reagan era.
For over two decades, Clarence Thomas and his wife have been accepting millions in free luxury vacations, tuition for their adopted son, a home for his mother, private jet and megayacht travel, and entrance to rarified clubs.
Sam Alito is also on the gravy train, and there are questions about how Brett Kavanaugh managed to pay off his credit cards and gambling debts. John Roberts’ wife has made over $10 million from law firms with business before the court; Neil Gorsuch got a sweetheart real estate deal; Amy Coney Barrett refuses to recuse herself from cases involving her father’s oil company.
None of this is illegal because when five corrupt Republicans on the Court legalized members of Congress taking bribes they legalized that same behavior for themselves.
This week, the Supreme Court tried to put a tiny fig leaf over the bloated, corpulent, naked corpse of their own obscene corruption. They call it a “Supreme Court Code of Conduct,” but it’s a pathetic joke.
It contains no enforcement provisions, no way for anybody to file complaints or blow the whistle, no consequences for violations, no system for investigations, no mechanism for informing the public, no specifics about what “corrupt behavior” means, and no penalties whatsoever even when behavior is so clearly corrupt it’s obvious to everybody.
At best, it’s a PR stunt; at worst, it’s the latest example of how arrogant the six Republicans running the Court have become about their own “right” to stay on the take and extend that largesse to every Republican politician in the country.
They’re responding, of course, to Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s efforts on the Senate Judiciary Committee to subpoena a few of the billionaires and political fixers who’ve been grooming Republican justices for decades. He wanted to start by questioning Harlan Crow and Leonard Leo.
Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, who are just fine with having six corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court so long as their corruption works to the GOP’s advantage, slapped 88 proposed amendments onto Whitehouse’s subpoena request, successfully blocking his efforts for the moment.
Every one of those Republican senators has received millions in billionaire and corporate money, along with their own “right” to enjoy the private jets and mega-yachts of their morbidly rich “supporters.”
So how is it that if you bribe a store clerk or a bank teller you go to prison, but if you bribe a politician, you get a tax break? When was bribery of politicians and Supreme Court justices legalized in America?
There was a time, after all, when politicians — both Democrats and Republicans — passed laws that conformed to the desires of the majority of Americans instead of the special interests.
From the end of the Republican Great Depression right up until the Reagan Revolution — from 1933 to 1981 — the American middle class had about a half-century of uninterrupted political and economic progress.
— Democrats passed the right to unionize, which built the American middle class, the world’s first. They passed unemployment insurance, the right to unionize, and workplace safety rules to protect workers.
— Social Security largely ended poverty among the elderly, and Medicare provided them with health security.
— A top income tax rate between 74% and 91% throughout that period kept wages strong for working people and prevented the corrosive wealth inequality we see today. We didn’t get our first billionaire until after the Reagan revolution dropped those top tax rates down to 27 percent.
— We built colleges that were free or affordable, gleaming new nonprofit hospitals, the world’s finest system of public schools, and roads, bridges, rail, and airports from coast to coast.
— We cleaned up the environment with the Environmental Protection Agency, cleaned up politics with the Federal Elections Commission, cleaned up corporate backroom deals with the Securities and Exchange Commission. We outlawed banks from gambling with our deposits via the Glass-Steagall law.
But it all came to a screeching halt with the Reagan Revolution. How and why?
Instead of building the middle class, Reaganomics gutted it. Instead of educating young people, it indebted them. Instead of supporting workers, the GOP’s “right to work for less” scheme took away their dignity and their pay.
Today both our nation’s infrastructure and our workforce are in shambles because of 40 years of disinvestment and neglect.
What made that possible? Why did that happen?
It all comes back to legalized political bribery.
Our modern era of legalized political bribery began in the decade after Richard Nixon put Lewis Powell — the tobacco lawyer who wrote the infamous 1971 “Powell Memo” outlining how billionaires and corporations could take over America — on the Supreme Court in 1972.
In the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, the Court ruled that political money wasn’t just cash: they claimed it’s also “free speech” protected by the First Amendment that guarantees your right to speak out on political issues.
In the 200 preceding years — all the way back to the American Revolution of 1776 — no politician or credible political scientist had ever proposed that giving money to a politician in exchange for favors or votes was anything other than simple bribery.
The “originalists” on the Supreme Court, however, claimed to be channeling the Founders of this nation, particularly those who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, when they said that “money was the same thing as free speech.” In that claim, Republicans on the Court were lying through their teeth.
In a letter to Samuel Kercheval in 1816, President and author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson explicitly laid it out:
“Those seeking profits, were they given total freedom, would not be the ones to trust to keep government pure and our rights secure. Indeed, it has always been those seeking wealth who were the source of corruption in government.”
In this, he was making the same argument that the Framers of Pennsylvania made when writing their constitution in 1776. As Kevin Phillips notes in his masterpiece book Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, a Sixteenth Article of the revolutionary-era Pennsylvania Bill of Rights declared:
“An enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common happiness of mankind, and, therefore, every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property.”
But Republicans on the Supreme Court weren’t reading the Founders. They were instead listening to the billionaires who helped get them on the court in the first place. Who had bribed them with position and power and then kept them in their thrall with luxury vacations, “friendship,” and gifts.
Two years after the 1976 Buckley decision, the Republicans on the Supreme Court struck again, this time adding that the “money is speech and can be used to buy politicians” argument applied to corporations as well as to billionaires. Lewis Powell himself wrote the majority opinion in the 1978 Boston v Bellotti decision.
Justices White, Brennan, and Marshall dissented:
“The special status of corporations has placed them in a position to control vast amounts of economic power which may, if not regulated, dominate not only our economy but the very heart of our democracy, the electoral process.”
But the dissenters lost the vote, and political corruption of everything from local elections to the Supreme Court itself was now virtually assured.
Notice that ruling came down just two years before the Reagan Revolution, when almost all forward progress in America came to a screeching halt.
It’s no coincidence.
And it’s gotten worse since then, with the Court doubling down in 2010 with Citizens United, overturning hundreds of state and federal “good government” laws dating all the way back to the late 1800s.
Thus, today America has a severe bribery problem.
It’s bizarre that the Court would keep intact anti-bribery laws across every facet of American life except politics, but that’s exactly what they did. Bribery is still illegal in business, it’s illegal in interactions with the police, but according to five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court it’s perfectly legal to bribe politicians.
No other developed country in the world has this problem, which is why every other developed country has a national healthcare system, free or near-free college, and strong unions that maintain a healthy middle class. It’s why they can afford pharmaceuticals, are taking active steps to stop climate change, and don’t fear being shot when they go to school, the theater, or shopping.
We’re the only major country in the world right now that is experiencing legislative gridlock on this scale. And we’ve been experiencing it for four decades.
This cannot continue. If America is to survive as a democratic republic, we must end the legal bribery of our politicians.
And that starts with the work Sheldon Whitehouse and his Democratic colleagues are doing on the Senate Judiciary Committee to reform the Supreme Court and hold its most corrupt members to account.