January 9, 2019

Word: Campaign contributions and bribery

Sam Smith - Today, every politician in Washington takes bribes, from the president on down. Only please call them campaign contributions.

Most assume that to bribe someone you have to commit a crime. Not so. Dictionary definitions of 'bribe' include both criminal and merely distasteful acts.

For centuries ordinary people knew exactly what a bribe was. The Oxford English Dictionary found it described in 1528 as meaning to "to influence corruptly, by a consideration." Another 16th century definition describes bribery as "a reward given to pervert the judgment or corrupt the conduct" of someone.

In more modern times, the Meat Inspection Act of 1917 prohibits giving "money or other thing of value, with intent to influence" to a government official. Simple and wise.

But that was before the lawyers and the politicians got around to rewriting the meaning of bribery. And so we came to a time during the Clinton administration when the Supreme Court actually ruled that a law prohibiting the giving of gifts to a public official "for or because of an official act" didn't mean anything unless you knew exactly what the official act was. In other words, bribery was only illegal if the bribed was dumb enough to give you a receipt.

The media has gone along with the scam, virtually dropping the word from its vocabulary in favor of phrases like "inappropriate gift," "the appearance of a conflict of interest," or "campaign contribution."

Yet, according to various dictionaries, campaign contributions fall comfortably within the definition of bribes. And hardly anyone in Washington talks about it.

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