A Texas jury effectively answered that question in the affirmative last week, when it convicted former majority whip Tom DeLay for money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. DeLay's defense, aside from his personal attacks against the Democratic-leaning prosecutor who brought charges against him, has always been: What's the big deal? Everybody does this stuff.
But as John Feehery, a former DeLay aide and a registered lobbyist, explained on his blog Monday, business as usual looks like a criminal conspiracy to folk in the hinterlands.
DeLay was right to say that this prosecution was a blatant example of the criminalization of politics. But he shouldn't be shocked by it. Politics is increasingly becoming a blood sport where the end game often means somebody goes to jail.
Of course, any time you take a case like this to a jury outside in the real world, you run some risks. I bet you that if somebody were indicted for giving campaign contributions to a political candidate with the expectation that that candidate would vote a certain way, another very common practice here in the Beltway, that a jury would convict that campaign contributor for bribery. Common practice here in DC looks an awful lot like plain old corruption everywhere else in the country.
As Jeffrey Smith explains in today's Washington Post, the DeLay trial focused heavily on the transactional nature of political campaign contributions, not just the specific charge of improperly moving money from one account to another. DeLay's own attorneys think this larger context led to the conviction.
"The jury was just sending a message saying it did not like money in politics," Houston lawyer Dick DeGuerin said in an interview. "We tried a logical, intellectual case to show that there was no crime," he said, but the jurors rebelled against what they regarded as a sea of corporate dollars enveloping DeLay and his bid to elect enough Republicans to take over the state legislature.
So what does that mean for the rest of Washington: Watch out. Despite the promises of Nancy Pelosi and the claims of John Boehner, the swamp has never been drained. And the sort of unethical behavior that sent Charlie Rangel down the road of self-immolation by extended monologue differs from normal congressional behavior only in the fine print. My favorite examples of the behavior that is probably technically legal though plainly noxious are the fat checks that cable giant Comcast has been writing to the Elijah Cummings Youth Program In Israel, even as Congressman Elijah Cummings supports Comcast's policy positions on Capitol Hill.
In Washington, it is widely assumed that the difference between bribery and proper business practices is not being stupid: Don't write down any evidence of a quid pro quo. Always maintain plausible deniability. Always maintain that financial backscratching is a result of deep respect, mutual admiration and altruism, not transactional value. Every day, this city's most powerful people tell themselves lies. As DeLay's Texas jury shows, the American people know this, they are mad, and if given a chance, they will do something about it.