Bob McDonnell's Corruption: The Real Scandal Is What's Legal

Why does the system penalize quid pro quo bribery severely but shrug off the malign effects of campaign donations?

Steve Helber/AP

The conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen on several corruption charges reveals yet again that Americans are more troubled by elected officials who pocket personal gifts than by those who accept large campaign contributions, sometimes from the same special interests. If it were otherwise, a considerable number of members of Congress would be on the docket right next to the governor—and on the way to jail.

The public can readily visualize an elected official doing special favors for someone who pays for designer clothing and accessories, a Rolex watch, and even his daughter’s wedding. They get even more enraged if someone gets a free trip of Vegas or a week at a choice golf course. (Such junkets are now labeled “educational" trips, because while Congress piously tightened ethics rules on junkets in 2007,  some lobbyists deftly redefined themselves to evade the restrictions).

The public is much less troubled, I regret to report, by boatloads of cash called campaign contributions delivered by special interests to members of Congress and other elected officials, which are much more harmful to the public interest and U.S. Treasury than personal gifts. What did businessman Jonnie Williams get for his gifts to the McDonnells? The governor promoted Williams’s dietary supplement and encouraged a state university to conduct research on it. Now compare this to the power of campaign contributions. For example, the vitamin-supplement industry has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Senators Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, and Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat. The pair has helped keep the FDA from regulating these supplements to ensure that they be safe and effective.

This is far from unusual. Effective lobbying and campaign contributions have, to offer just a few examples, given the country battle tanks and drones the military neither wants nor needs; allowed hedge-fund managers’ salaries to be taxed as if they were capital gains and not income, saving them millions; and protected major subsidies for oil and gas corporations who are doing very well on their own.

Of course, campaign contributions not only affect this or that piece of legislation or tax exemption or regulation; they play a key role in determining who gets elected—giving them a role in all the votes that an elected official casts. True, some candidates who raise a great deal of money lose, but few candidates can run in competitive elections without raising funds from special interests, which often give donations to both sides. A considerable number of members of Congress run uncontested, among other reasons because their large campaign chests deter challengers. (Special interests tend to favor those in office, which is one reason that more than 90 percent of members of Congress were reelected in 2012 despite the fact that the public holds those in office in such low regard.)

This is not to suggest the McDonnells did not cross a line, or that pocketing personal gifts should not be considered a serious dereliction of duty. But we need to pay much more attention to the corrupting effect of campaign contributions. To prevent the double standard, which punishes those who gain personal gifts severely but lets elected officials all but sell pieces of legislation for campaign contributions, we need to redefine corruption. Despite what the conservative majority on the Supreme Court has to say, the term ought to include not just quid pro quo bribery but any exchange of official favors for cash.