Does the First Amendment Protect Payment for Access?

 As many readers of this blog know, U.S. law on whether (or when) campaign donations can be proscribed by criminal anticorruption statutes is quite complicated, and to some degree unsettled. On the one hand, the Supreme Court has held that campaign contributions are constitutionally protected “speech” under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. On the other hand, U.S. criminal law can and does prohibit campaign donations that are the “quid” in a classic quid pro quo bribery transaction. In other words, it would unconstitutional for the U.S. to prohibit campaign donations to politicians even if such a prohibition is motivated by the generalized worry that politicians might show special solicitude to the interests of their big donors. But it is perfectly constitutional for Congress to prohibit quid pro quo transactions in which a private interest offers a campaign donation as the “quid” in exchange for some “quo.”

It remains an open question, however, what can qualify as the “quo.” Certainly passing legislation, directing federal funding, and securing special regulatory benefits and exceptions would suffice. But what about mere access — an understanding between the donor and elected official that a campaign contribution will get the donor special access to the official? Two recent Supreme Court opinions — Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC — contain language suggesting that it might be unconstitutional for U.S. law to prohibit an explicit quid pro quo agreement in which a politician offers access in exchange for campaign contributions. According to Citizens United, “[i]ngratiation and access . . . are not corruption,” while McCutcheon cautioned that “government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies or the political access such support may afford” (emphasis added).

Despite this suggestive language, the Supreme Court has not yet had to confront head-on the question of whether the First Amendment protects quid pro quo payment-for-access. The closest it came was last year in United States v. McDonnell (discussed on the blog here, here, and here). In that case, Governor McDonnell helped to arrange meetings between businessman Jonnie Williams and government officials, and accepted personal gifts from Mr. Williams in exchange. By a vote of 7-0, the McDonnell Court reversed the governor’s conviction and construed the federal bribery statute at issue not to cover the governor’s conduct.

But this doesn’t resolve the constitutional question. McDonnell turned on the construction of the existing federal anti-bribery statute, which requires that the “quo” be an “official act,” which the Court construed narrowly as excluding provision of mere access. Moreover, McDonnell was not a First Amendment case, as the alleged bribes were not campaign contributions. Nonetheless, the Court did discuss the concept of corruption in a manner reminiscent of its opinions in Citizens United and McCutcheon. According to McDonnell: “[C]onscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time. . . . The Government’s position [that McDonnell violated the law] could cast a pall of potential prosecution over these relationships if [a donor] had given a campaign contribution in the past . . . . Officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse.” Furthermore, McCutcheon — which was a First Amendment case — defined the sort of corruption that could justify restrictions on campaign donations as “a direct exchange of an official act for money” (emphasis added), which might imply that, at least in the campaign donation context, McDonnell’s reading of the anti-bribery statute is constitutionally required.

But is that right? Separate from the question of whether Congress should criminalize payment-for-access, and from the question of whether Congress has in fact done so in the existing federal anti-bribery statutes, is the question of whether Congress could criminally proscribe payment-for-access if it wanted to. In other words, is payment-for-access constitutionally protected? Though some of the Supreme Court’s recent language has suggested such a conclusion, I believe that proposition is wrong, for three reasons:

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Is It a Crime To Promise To Support a Legislator Who Votes the Way You Want?

Last March, while President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan were trying—ultimately unsuccessfully—to muster enough votes for the first version of their proposed Obamacare replacement, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), the Koch brothers’ political organizations announced that they would set up a fund to provide substantial campaign support to all Republicans who voted against the AHCA (which the Koch brothers opposed on the grounds that it didn’t go far enough in repealing the health insurance expansions brought about by the Obamacare). Stripped to its essence, the Koch brothers said to Republican House Representatives: “If you vote the way we want on this bill, we’ll donate (more) money to your campaigns; if you don’t, we won’t.”

Was that offer a violation of the federal anti-bribery statute? In a provocative essay, Louisiana State University Law Professor Ken Levy says yes, it was. Professor Levy reasons as follows: The anti-bribery statute, codified at 18 USC § 201(b), prohibits any person from “giv[ing], offer[ing] or promis[ing] anything of value to any public official … with intent to influence any official act.” The Koch brothers certainly “offered” or “promised” campaign donations, and campaign donations indubitably count as a “thing of value.” Moreover, the Koch brothers made this promise in order to influence a vote in the legislature, clearly an official act. Moreover, as Professor Levy points out, although many people seem to think that the Supreme Court has ruled that providing campaign donations in exchange for votes is constitutionally protected, in fact the Court has held the opposite: promising campaign donations in exchange for an “official act” does qualify as an unlawful bribe, so long as there’s a quid pro quo; in the absence of a quid pro quo, Congress’s power to regulate campaign donations or expenditures is more limited. Thus, all the elements of a §201(b) violation are present, and at least in principle, the Koch brothers could be prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to a prison term of up to 15 years and/or a fine of up to three times the value of the thing of value offered (which this case could run into the tens of millions of dollars).

Professor Levy’s legal analysis seems, at least on a first reading, to be correct. At the same time, I find it unthinkable that any federal prosecutor—not just Jeff Sessions, but even someone like Preet Bharara—would bring criminal charges in this case, or that any judge would allow a conviction to stand. Professor Levy’s provocative essay has forced me to think a bit harder about why that is. The fact that I can’t imagine a federal bribery case could or should be brought against the Koch brothers for their announced campaign support plan, despite the fact that the conduct seems clearly to violate the letter of the law, suggests that something has gone seriously awry with how U.S. law, and U.S. political culture, think about the relationship between campaign donations, political speech, and criminal bribery. Continue reading

Why Did Trump’s Anticorruption Rhetoric Resonate? Three Hypotheses

OK, I know I said in last week’s post that I would eventually get back to blogging about topics other than Trump, but not yet. After all, Trump’s election—a political and moral crisis on so many dimensions—poses distinctive challenges for the anticorruption community, in at least two different (though related) respects. The first concerns the consequences of a Trump Administration for US anticorruption efforts, both at home and abroad, a topic I’ve already blogged about (see here and here). The second issue concerns the role that anticorruption sentiments and rhetoric played in Trump’s victory. After all, Trump positioned himself (ironically, outrageously) as an anticorruption candidate, denouncing Secretary Clinton as “crooked Hillary” and pledging to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption.

It’s no surprise that the mainstream anticorruption community are perturbed, to put it mildly, by the effective deployment of anticorruption rhetoric by a racist xenophobic ultra-nationalist bully. While this is hardly a new phenomenon—see, for example, Katie King’s post on Hungary last year—the Trump victory has forced the anticorruption community to confront it head on. Indeed, at the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Panama a couple of weeks back, the appropriation of anticorruption rhetoric by right-wing populists—especially though not exclusively Trump—was a constant subject of hallway conversation, even if relatively little of the IACC’s formal program dealt directly with this issue. (In fairness, many of the IACC speakers did find a way to raise some of these concerns in their presentations, and the organizers also managed to add a last-minute session, in which I was able to participate, discussing this topic.) What are we to make of this? What lessons should the anticorruption community—as well as others aghast at the success of Trump and other right-wing demagogues—take away from Trump’s successful appropriation of anticorruption rhetoric?

I wish I knew the answer to that question. I don’t, and won’t pretend to. But I do think it would be helpful to lay out what I view as the three main competing hypotheses: Continue reading

U.S. Voters Says that Corruption Is a Major Issue. Why Are Politicians Silent on It?

If public opinion polls are any guide, corruption is one of the most important issues to U.S. voters. A 2012 Gallup survey by Gallup found that a full 87% of Americans deemed reducing corruption as either extremely important or very important—placing this issue second only to the economy/job creation, and ahead of the budget deficit, terrorism, and Social Security. More recent polls buttress these findings: A 2015 survey found that 58% of respondents were afraid or very afraid of corruption by government officials, the highest of any fear surveyed. This meant that corruption was a greater fear than large-scale disasters like terrorist attacks or economic collapse, as well personal events like identity theft, running out of money, or credit card fraud. Three-quarters of those surveyed in 2015 also believed that corruption was widespread in the government, a marked increase from 2007. And a 2016 survey found that 16% ranked corruption the single most important issue, which might sound low, but was the third highest issue in the polls.

Yet despite these poll numbers, U.S. politicians and parties do not seem to have made anticorruption a major policy priority; certainly this issue gets far less attention than terrorism and the budget deficit. True, U.S. politicians will sometimes attack their rivals as “corrupt,” a rhetorical tactic we have seen in the current election (see here and here). But although politicians use the term “corrupt” to malign their opponents, they do not seem to treat corruption as a genuine issue in need of fixing, and do not put forward an anticorruption policy agenda. Hillary Clinton has an extensive list of policy proposals on her campaign website, yet corruption and anticorruption are not mentioned. Although her website goes in depth about money in politics, it stops short of using the term “corruption” to describe this problem. Donald Trump did recently release a five-point ethics plan that used the term “corruption” once, but it is incredibly vague and appears to have been made out of desperation in the closing days of the campaign. In any event, his “Issues” page still does not mention corruption, nor do those of third-party candidates Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, or Evan McMullen.

What explains this disconnect? Huge numbers of Americans tell opinion pollsters that they believe that the government is corrupt and that this is one of the biggest problems facing the country. Yet political parties and politicians barely discuss “corruption” (except as invective) or lay out plans for solving it. This is a puzzle. Politicians, after all, have strong incentives to talk about the issues that voters care most about. Even if we doubt how seriously we should take politicians’ platforms and campaign rhetoric, one would think that it would make sense for politicians at least to pay lip service to the idea of fighting public corruption, if voters care so much about it. So why do we not see more focus on corruption and anticorruption in the platforms of U.S. presidential candidates?

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Against Alarmism: Frank Vogl’s Misguided Critique of the DOJ’s Decision Not To Re-Try Bob McDonnell

Earlier this month, the ongoing saga of the bribery charges against former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell came to an end—not with a bang but a whimper—when the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would not seek a re-trial in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to vacate McDonnell’s original conviction. Given that we’ve already had plenty of discussion of the McDonnell case on GAB (including commentary on the Supreme Court’s decision here and here), I wasn’t planning to say more about this.

But then I read Frank Vogl’s blog post on The Globalist. Mr. Vogl’s view is that the DOJ’s decision shows that, with respect to corruption, it’s now the case that “[a]nything goes in America, third-world style” and that “[t]he United States, once an admirable leader on combatting political corruption, has now fallen into line with the lax standards of business-political relationships that pervade many other countries.” (He later refers to the U.S. “a stinking city on the Hill.”) Mr. Vogl also declares that the “core message” of the DOJ’s decision not to re-try McDonnell is that the DOJ has “accepted an increasingly narrow definition of corruption,” and he further insinuates that Hillary Clinton and the mainstream Democratic Party (as well as the Republican Party) are “content to accept money in politics in all its forms.”

This is histrionic nonsense. The core arguments are so obviously flawed that at first I didn’t think it was worth writing a rebuttal. But Mr. Vogl is an influential voice in the world of anticorruption advocacy, given that he’s one of the 852 co-founders of Transparency International. (OK, OK, that’s an exaggeration. But if I had a quarter for every person I’ve heard claim to have been one of the founders of TI, I’d be able to buy myself a Grande Frappuccino at my local Starbucks, maybe even a Venti.) So I thought it would be worthwhile to explain why I had such a negative reaction to his piece. Here goes: Continue reading

A Step in the Wrong Direction: How Term Limits Could Increase Corruption

The recent federal corruption convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, longtime New York legislative leaders, have rightly led many to offer suggestions for preventing political corruption by elected officials. In two posts on this blog, Sarah suggested a mechanism for creating additional parties to make elections more competitive, and, in an earlier post, she proposed limiting New York legislators’ opportunity to take on additional employment. Others have suggested increasing legislator pay, amending campaign finance laws to close the “LLC loophole,” and increasing enforcement, including with independent ethics officers. This list is far from exhaustive.

One other “fix” that comes up again and again: term limits for legislators. Soon after the corruption scandal involving Silver and Skelos hit the news, a New York Post opinion piece called for term limits. And since Silver and Skelos were convicted, the calls have continued for term limits as part of a package of reforms (see, for example, here, here, and here). Although no one asserts that term limits are the silver bullet for ending corruption, many claim that term limits can play a constructive role as part of a comprehensive anticorruption package. But I am not convinced that term limits actually reduce the likelihood of corruption. Not only are term limits unlikely to be much help, but—as others have also argued (see here and here)—term limits might even increase corruption. Here’s why:

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Political Finance Regulation and Perceived Corruption: Some Preliminary Exploration

Corruption is closely linked to problems associated with money in politics. Indeed, some have argued that an excessive/inappropriate influence of money on elections is corruption (even if it’s not necessarily illegal or currently viewed as unethical). Even for those who (like me) prefer a more restrictive definition of “corruption,” it is widely believed that these issues are related. Many hypothesize that countries with weak or ineffective systems of political finance regulation may experience higher levels of corruption—though at the same time excessively onerous, unrealistic regulations on political spending may also induce corruption in order to circumvent the official rules. Perhaps surprisingly, though, we do not have (or at least I have not yet seen) very much quantitative, comparative research on the relationship between the quality of countries’ laws on the regulation of political finance, on the one hand, and the extent of their corruption problems, on the other.

This may be starting to change, thanks in part to initiatives like the Money, Politics and Transparency (MPT) forum (a collaborative venture of the Sunlight Foundation, Global Integrity, and the Electoral Integrity Project). A few weeks back Rick posted a highly critical assessment of MPT’s volume Checkbook Elections, a collection of qualitative case studies. I haven’t yet read that report, but here I wanted to focus on another aspect of MPT’s work: a quantitative index that purports to measure how well 54 different democratic countries regulate political finance, based on responses to 50 survey questions in five different categories (public funding of elections, contribution and expenditure restrictions, reporting and disclosure, regulation of third-party actors, and monitoring/enforcement). The surveys include questions about both law and practice in all five categories; moreover, in addition to a composite index score, MPT also provides separate scores for the quality of electoral regulation both “in law” and “in practice.” (A detailed description of the methodology is available here.) All the usual caveats and concerns regarding these sorts of composite indexes of course apply here, but at first pass this seems like a useful resource, and potentially helpful in teasing out the relationships between political finance regulation and corruption more generally.

Real progress on this will front require careful research design, more extensive data, and the application of rigorous empirical methods—an enterprise for which I lack both the time and the talent. But just for fun, I played around a bit to see how the MPT index (and each sub-index) correlates with the 2014 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Are countries with better regulation of political finance (in law, in practice, or overall) perceived as more corrupt? Less corrupt? I’ll tell you what I found after the break, but just for fun take a guess now, before you know the answer!

OK, here’s what I found: Continue reading