Redefining bribery would go a long way toward preventing campaign contributions from corrupting our political system. This could be achieved by limiting what contributors can gain in exchange for their donations rather than by adding or restoring limitations on the amounts they can donate. In this way, the suggested reform would avoid falling afoul of Supreme Court rulings that treat donations as a form of speech and hence deem most limitations on donations to be unconstitutional.

Better yet, the Court has already indicated that it favors a focus on corruption rather than on donations. The Court has repeatedly recognized that the “[g]overnment has a strong interest, no less critical to our democratic system, in combatting corruption and its appearance.” In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (2014), the Court stated that “disclosure of contributions minimizes the potential for abuse of the campaign finance system [and] may also ‘deter actual corruption and avoid the appearance of corruption by exposing large contributions and expenditures to the light of publicity.’” This raises the question of what constitutes corruption. The Court recognizes only “a specific kind of corruption—quid pro quo corruption,” which involves the “direct exchange of an official act for money,” or “dollars for political favors.” This definition does not include spending merely to “‘garner influence over or access to’ elected officials” (McCutcheon v. FEC).


The trouble with this definition is that many understand it to apply only when the donor has explicitly conditioned his donation on receiving a substantial material benefit. As a result, many consider it legal if a donor (known to represent some industry, labor union, or a special interest group) approaches an elected official who is about to vote on a law that would benefit the donor, makes a donation to that official’s campaign chest, and informs him that he will be back next week and might make additional donations. This is considered legal because the donor does not explicitly tie his donation to getting anything in return. A “reasonable person”—a concept on which the law often relies in other matters—or a jury would readily recognize this as a form of bribery. If Congress is ready to respond to the very wide public outcry over political corruption, it should enact a law that prohibits donors from receiving any substantial material benefits for their donations, whether or not they have explicitly conditioned their donations upon gaining such benefits.

In Alaska, former state legislator Ray Metcalfe recently launched a petition drive to add a proposition to Alaska’s 2016 ballot that would propose a “presumptive political bribery” statute. This statute would state:

"(a) It is a class A felony for public officials to regulate or legislate competitive advantages for, or direct appropriations to themselves, their business partners, their clients, immediate family, past, present, or sought-after employers or contributors, including contributors to independent expenditure campaigns intended to increase the probability of their election[. …]

"(c) Presumptive political bribery shall be narrowly construed. Actions affecting legislation and/or regulations which similarly impact a broad spectrum of population, and have relatively minor fiscal impacts incidental only to implementation, are exempt. Members of deliberative bodies may absolve themselves of potential conflict by entering their conflict into the record and refraining from voting.”

This approach provides one way to redefine bribery, though, as I see it, one should place the emphasis on the donors who seek to bribe rather than on the officials they target. And it should be clear that the law should apply not merely to individuals who seek to benefit themselves and their kin, but also to those who represent the interests of one special interest group or another.

Some donors argue that they give because they share the “philosophical” positions of the candidates. However, if these donors do not distribute their funds among those who share their position, but instead grant them only or mainly to those who “deliver the goods,” one should not allow this defense to stand.

Many Americans feel that we are moving from a system of “one person, one vote” to one of “one dollar, one vote.” These feelings are one major reason that the American people hold Congress in such low regard. If Congress is ready to embrace major reform, redefining corruption along the suggested lines will go a long way toward restoring integrity to our political system.

Etzioni is a professor at The George Washington University and author of many books, including The New Normal: Finding a Balance between Individual Rights and the Common Good (Transaction 2014).