Wednesday, March 28, 2018

If Legislative Coalitions Require Members To Vote For The Budget In Exchange For Benefits, Is That Bribery?

Alaska state representative  David Eastman from the Mat-Su, in a commentary in today's newspaper, raises an interesting question.  He describes when legislators join the Republican controlled 'fraternity' (the majority caucus) in Juneau, they get a bunch of perks - bigger office, more staff, prime committee membership and possible committee chairs, access to better state travel money and
 "you are invited to be 'at the table' at those closed-door meetings that never take place (at least officially.)"
But all those things don't come without a string attached.
"The cost for joining the fraternity is simple: a promise to vote with the fraternity when called upon to do so, and to approve the state budget endorsed by the fraternity — no matter what's in it."
 So, a group of legislators that forms a majority caucus, sets up rules that give benefits to legislators in exchange for votes.  That's what Eastman is complaining about.

If I gave a legislator $500 for a plane trip on the condition that he vote a certain way on a particular bill, that would be clearly illegal.

Here's from the Alaska Statutes:

"Alaska Statutes.
Title 11. Criminal Law
Chapter 56. Offenses Against Public Administration
Section 100. Bribery.
previous: Chapter 56. Offenses Against Public Administration
next: Section 110. Receiving a Bribe.
AS 11.56.100. Bribery.
(a) A person commits the crime of bribery if the person confers, offers to confer, or agrees to confer a benefit upon a public servant with the intent to influence the public servant's vote, opinion, judgment, action, decision, or exercise of official discretion.
(b) In a prosecution under this section, it is not a defense that the person sought to be influenced was not qualified to act in the desired way, whether because that person had not assumed office, lacked jurisdiction, or for any other reason.
(c) Bribery is a class B felony."  [emphasis added]

Clearly, when someone joins a Republican majority coalition, as Easton has described it, that coalition "confers, offers to confer, or agrees to confer a benefit upon a public servant with the intent to influence the public servant's vote, opinion, judgment, action, decision, or exercise of official discretion."

The benefits are all those things Easton describes:

  • larger office
  • better committee assignments including chairs
  • more staff
  • better travel benefits
  • and access to private meetings where key decisions are made

In exchange, the legislator must vote as the coalition dictates on key bills including the budget.  As he describes it, their exercise of official discretion is removed.

I recall when  Rep. Lora Reinbold was kicked out of the Republican coalition in 2015, she was stripped of her committee assignments and her office etc.  She was kicked out because she didn't vote for the budget the coalition had put together.  I wrote a long post then (March 30, 2015) exploring the logic and reasoning and ethics of such rules.  But I didn't talk about it being a form of bribery.  But the way Easton talks about, it certainly seems to fit.

Here's a bit of what I wrote then.  The first quote confirms Easton's allegation.
"ADN Saturday March 28, 2015:
“All I can say is, she knew what she was doing, she knew what the rules were, and chose to go the way she did. There are consequences,” [House Speaker Mike Chenault] said."
Then I called my legislator's office and was told that wasn't how the Minority (Democratic) caucus worked.  They had no rules.  He suggested I call someone from the Majority (Republican) caucus.

"I check with speaker Chenault's office. 
A male staffer answered.  I explained my query and asked where I could get a copy of the rules.   
They're unwritten rules, he told me, that the caucus has.  There is no written set of rules.  They're understood.  The main one is to vote for the budget.  If you don't, things can happen.   I asked how anyone finds out about the rules?   They're told in the caucus he said."
The 2015 post got into questions about written and unwritten rules.  I wondered whether the fact that rules were unwritten suggested they knew there was something shady about them.  But on further reflection, spurred on by Rep. Eastman, I think it's a pretty clear case of bribery.

Now, I'm also sure that the Republicans have somewhere exempted internal wrangling from being interpreted as bribery.  And it's clear that log-rolling and 'if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" are long accepted practices in legislatures.  

Log-rolling is part of the process of getting work done in legislative bodies made up of many individuals with different agendas.  It's how you compromise.  The legislator may get a bill he badly wants passed, but he's not getting personal benefits.  But what Eastman so clearly describes is an attempt by party leaders to force their members to bow to their will in exchange for a bunch of benefits.

I'll try to check on if and where this practice is exempted from the Statute on bribery.  If I find out, I'll post again with some options for how one could end the exemptions.  If I can't find such exemptions, I think it would be time to prosecute the leaders of the Republican coalitions for bribery.


  1. Of course it's bribery (as coercion), part of Trump and his Republican enablers' (if not the whole GOP's) bag of dirty tricks: Bribery, Blackmail and Bullying -- if not downright physical threats: some Electoral College members told of their families being threatened if they did not vote for Trump -- was this true? It seems right in the wheelhouse of the GOP as it continues to voter suppress, gerrymander and change the legislative rules to fit the problems they face. Can't win an election? Cheat. Lie.

    Also, it seems to me the WH doc who gave Trump a clean bill of health, including mentally, is now tapped for a seat in Trump's cabinet. Hard to believe it wasn't a tit-for-tat arrangement. Bribery?
    When it seems to be blatantly done many times before, hard not to suspect it being done once again.

    But even if it is bribery, nothing will be done about it. The checks and balances systems are so increasingly corrupted (due to bribery, blackmail and bullying), that democracy (even the watered down version we "enjoy") hasn't a chance.

    The huge number of Federal judges (loyal to the GOP's extreme right wing agenda) that Trump put in place -- for life -- will put paid to many legal attempts to redress the issues. All the shiny entertainment distractions of this clownish president the media followed while the long-term invidiousness continued behind the scenes.

    A few mainstream media (and comedian pundits) are watching -- but is it too little, too late?

  2. Barbara, no; it isn't too late. The Republic pulled through the total bought corruption of the Guilded Age and it can this, too.

    It took yet another populist (reforming) president to set much of what was wrong then, right. It's all a bit much, isn't it?

    And Steve, as to run-of-the-mill politics, it's not much better, really, and that's what keeps the courts out of the saugage-making most times. Gene and I know this story from 1998: When the constitutional amendment to limit marriage to heterosexual couples was readied for passage in the Alaska Legislature, one critically-needed Democrat's vote was pledged on the promise of a line-item for a long-requested fire engine for that member's district (Republicans had a super-majority then and could do what they wanted with the budget -- sound familiar?).

    That Democrat voted for the amendment. He got his fire engine, and Alaskans got its discriminatory amendment. As you know, we left the state as soon as we could tidy up our very long lives there.

    Lesson learned.

    1. Yes, there is the option of leaving....and my first husband and I did. It was during Vietnam. Welcomed into Canada as Landed Immigrants. Best decision I ever made. I am a (dual) citizen -- Canadian-American -- so I can vote, but grieve for my birth country...

    2. Barbara, good on you! We wanted to emigrate to Canada as we love northern lands (we did get married in Yukon Territory in 2007), but we were 50+ years of age and I had no higher qualifications.

      Fortunately, Gene was dual-national Irish and US and we were able to settle in London (the UK one). Now I am the one holding British citizenship in case Brexit gets weird on us.

      As to sobbing softly, I'm grateful for a cynicism gained from learning America's lofty civics and seeing, from a distance, the realities of our former home. It helps stifle the tears.


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