Read: Paul Manafort, American hustler
They might represent foreign governments, but technically do not lobby Congress on their behalf; they make millions, while never subjecting their work to public scrutiny—or themselves to personal embarrassment. (From filings in the Mueller case, we now know that the Justice Department investigated Manafort for brazen disregard of FARA in 1986, just as he was setting out in his career as a lobbyist representing foreign governments. But it could apparently never summon the will to prosecute someone so well connected.)
Or take the more rampant problem of tax evasion. While Manafort will serve time for failing to pay his bills to the government, armies of lawyers and accountants are feverishly devising novel methods of enabling the rich to cheat the IRS, depriving the U.S. of nearly $200 billion in revenue each year. As one old joke holds, the difference between tax avoidance (which is legal) and tax evasion (which is not) is the wall of a prison.
This is the same pattern made visible by the college admissions scandal. The public gets inflamed over a supposedly outrageous piece of behavior that is really not so far from the standard elite procedure. When a wealthy donor contributes $10 million to a university, imagining that their child will someday attend, administrators call it a “gift” and applaud the gesture of philanthropy. But it is, in effect, institutionalized bribery, and it creates new templates of moral behavior. It makes recognizing as wrong under-the-table payments to college coaches harder for parents, when these payment so resemble the gift-giving they see officially sanctioned.
Ken White: 6 reasons Paul Manafort got off so lightly
America never had an edenic period, when the country resided in a state of pristine civic virtue. But the past half century has ushered in an era of rank indifference to the perils of corruption and bribery. Not so long ago, the United States had a far more robust definition of what counted as a bribe. That broad definition constrained the growth of the American lobbying industry. Back in the 1960s, lobbying hardly existed in Washington—at least not in the form and on the scale that we now know it. The ledger of officially registered lobbyists extended into the high double digits. By the 1990s, the population of lobbyists had swelled to well over 10,000.
If Americans are more comfortable living in a world of bribery, perhaps it’s because American jurisprudence has legalized so much of it. One accelerant was Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in the Citizens United case, in 2010. Kennedy gave the Supreme Court’s official sanction to anonymous campaign contributions, overturning a long trajectory of reforms that prodded the political system in the direction of transparency and rigid limits. Kennedy’s decision made tracing how political giving shapes political decisions nearly impossible. But it was even worse than that. Kennedy’s justification officially circumscribed the legal definition of bribery, constraining it to encompass only the most explicit bribes and quid pro quos. He scrubbed away the Founders’ concern with the corrupting influence of gifts, which had been enshrined in the Constitution.