Grease Monkeys: The Speaker, The Spigot and the Slitherer-in-Chief

This is a slightly expanded version of the column published Aug. 12 in The Moscow Times.

One of the grubby little secrets of the Great Potomac Grease Pit – otherwise known as the government of the United States – is that the massive amount of bribes given and taken there often has little effect on the final outcome of policy decisions and legislation.

Cynics – and you know you who are – tend to believe that Washington is overrun with sleazy bagmen prowling the halls of Congress and slithering down White House corridors, proffering baubles, trinkets, sweetmeats and other enticements to plucky public servants, drawing them away from the straight and narrow to do the bidding of rapacious elites. But like so many of the hateful canards issuing from the foul stithy of the liberal imagination these days, this fantasy contains scarcely a shred of truth.

The plain fact is, most politicians take bribes to push policies they already support. With very few exceptions, you are just not going to achieve a place of prominence in national politics unless you are already the kind of person happy to do the bidding of rapacious elites, whatever the cut of your rhetorical jib ("progressive," "moderate," "conservative," etc.). Like Macbeth's spectral dagger, bribery merely marshall'st the politician in the way he was going.

So why all the baubles and trinkets? Why the armies of sleazemongering lobbyists that indeed infest every nook and cranny of the capital? Two reasons. First of all, a little sweetener never goes amiss to put some spine into your bought-and-paid-for pol. They do sometimes get delusions of democracy and may be tempted to bend to the popular will if the suckers out there get riled up about something. This is especially tricky when you're trying to cram yet another wad of corporate welfare – or a war of conquest for crony enrichment – down the public throat. A nice packet of "bundled" campaign donations or a barrel of "soft money" – or perhaps more direct, more discreet emollients – helps your pet politician maintain the courage of his corporate convictions and face down the pesky ballot-fodder when they get out of line.

Second, you never know when some rival sleazemonger might outbid you for your politician's services. Lord knows the little darlings are only human: wave enough long green in their faces and they might leap from your pirate ship into the lap of the buccaneer next door. But that's a big step, always fraught with danger, and most pols won't take it unless they have to. They'd rather have a steady, moderate level of "gifts" to keep voting toward their natural inclinations instead of a big, risky payoff for a public changing of spots.

Talk of bribery in high places leads us, of course, to Representative Dennis Hastert of  Illinois: Speaker of the House, third in line to the presidency, chief toter of legislative water for George W. Bush. Last week, Hastert was accused of taking bribes from Turkish agents in exchange for inside information and legislative favors – such as steering Congress away from legislation condemning Turkey's mass slaughter of Armenians in the early 20th century, Vanity Fair reports.

The accusations were made by Turkish agents overheard on wiretaps, part of a long-running spy probe. The Hastert revelations are actually a sideshow to an even more sinister story: the Bush Administration's firing and muzzling of a courageous whistleblower, FBI translator Sibel Edmonds, who uncovered evidence of corruption, incompetence and possible espionage in the center of the 9/11 investigation.

Naturally, waterboy Hastert denied the bribery accusations that emerged from the Edmonds affair -- although his campaign records do show an inordinate number of neatly bundled small gifts in line with the regular payment scheme detailed by the Turkish agents in their private conversations. One Turkish official claimed on tape that Hastert wanted $50,000 for his most audacious – and risky – public spot-changing: quashing a resolution officially condemning the Armenian slaughter as genocide. After championing the bill for months, Hastert withdrew it just minutes before the House vote on the measure. He later claimed this sudden about-face was a favor to then-President Bill Clinton: the man Hastert and his cohorts had just spent months – and millions of public dollars – trying to impeach.

Hastert is innocent until proven guilty, of course. And in today's one-party Washington, the chances that these charges of corruption and foreign hire in the highest reaches of the Republican-controlled Congress will ever be pursued by federal prosecutors or the, er, Republican-controlled Congress, are, as they say, slim and none. So we'll never know just why Hastert's long-evident inclination to support Turkey – which may or may not have been gently urged along by steady remuneration – suddenly gave way to a spasm of public spot-changing to the Armenian cause and then back again. There may be any number of reasons: personal, political, pecuniary. But "honoring a request from Bill Clinton" is probably the least credible of them all.

Ah, but how quaint to talk of "bribes" when oceans of legalized thievery are gushing from the Grease Pit. Just this week, the Slitherer-in-Chief signed the ballyhooed "Energy Bill" that Hastert marshalled through Congress for him: a gazillion-dollar boondoggle that even Bush cheerfully admits will do nothing to ease the nation's energy crisis and its fatal dependence on foreign oil. (Fatal for other people, that is – like, say, 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians.) No, the bill will just make Bush's energy baron cronies a lot richer – and even more untouchable by local governments who might seek to put the teeniest crimp in the barons' earth-raping depredations.

So let's give Hastert the benefit of the doubt. Who needs back-door pork when you can wallow so openly in the sty like this?