Such problems are not simply theoretical. Until the case was reversed by the Supreme Court, former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy was convicted of taking about $6,000 worth of gratuities from a large agricultural interest, including tickets to the U.S. Open tennis tournament, luggage and meals. In 1988, then-Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) was convicted of violating the gratuities statute by accepting lavish vacations and spa treatments in exchange for using his influence to pressure city and federal officials to make favorable accommodations for a ship company that was a major client of a fellow politician’s insurance agency.
Without an operational illegal gratuities statute in place, these egregious, willful violations involving items of great value escape criminal prosecution and are simply treated as administrative violations of gift rules penalized with a relative slap on the wrist.
An effective gratuity statute is the last bulwark precluding a Member from facing no criminal repercussions for accepting cash rewards for performing legislative favors that fall short of “formal” actions such as roll-call votes. The Leahy-Cornyn provisions provide a defense against these perils to our system of democratic government.
With Congress’ approval rating hovering around 10 percent, passing these much-needed changes to our anti-corruption laws would send a message that Members do not see themselves as above the law. House leadership, instead of claiming to have passed a “stronger bill,” should reverse course and allow the provisions to be restored in conference.
Without these changes, public officials intent on enhancing their lifestyle by accepting gifts, money and services from interested parties will continue to have no fear of criminal prosecution. Such an outcome will worsen the “pay to play” atmosphere on Capitol Hill and in statehouses, city halls and government offices across the country.
Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and heads McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business.