A Drug-Company Bribe?
The Medicare vote scandal, continued.
Cherchez la pharmaceutical lobbyist.
It is now beyond dispute that retiring Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., was offered a $100,000 bribe to vote for the Medicare pharmaceutical bill. Smith turned down the bribe—a promise of campaign funds for Smith's son Brad, who is seeking the GOP nomination to succeed his father. Smith then described the offer, angrily but somewhat enigmatically, to various media outlets. After Chatterbox pointed out that an offer of $100,000 in exchange for a House vote met the statutory definition of bribery (the recipient can be a third-party "entity"), Smith clammed up. Then, late last week, just as the Justice Department was promising to review the case (the House ethics committee is also poised to investigate), Smith recanted:
I want to make clear that no member of Congress made an offer of financial assistance for my son's campaign in exchange for my vote on the Medicare bill. I was told that my vote could result in interested groups giving substantial and aggressive campaign "support" and "endorsements." No specific reference was made to money[italics Chatterbox's].
This cannot be squared with a taped interview Smith had given three days earlier to Kevin Vandenbroek of WKZO in Kalamazoo, Mich., in which Smith said, "the first offer was to give [Brad] $100,000-plus for his campaign and endorsement by national leadership." (If you scroll to the "update" portion of this earlier item, you can listen to the WKZO tape and/or read the transcript.) Chatterbox tried once again today to get some sort of clarification from Rep. Smith and was politely rebuffed.
The only remaining question is who offered the bribe. Happily, WKZO's Vandenbroek had an interview with Smith on Nov. 24—one week earlier than his "$100,000-plus" interview—that provides an additional clue. In the Nov. 24 interview, Smith referred to three distinct components to the arm-twisting: the offer of money, the offer of support from the GOP leadership, and the pledge to work to defeat Brad. Here's how Smith described the offer of money (to listen yourself, click here):
The first offer I got was from the pharmaceutical business groups that are pushing for this bill, an offer of substantial campaign support for my son Brad in his run for Congress.
It's no great surprise that the source of cash for the Medicare bribe would be drug companies, which had more to gain from the bill's passage than anyone else. But this is the only instance Chatterbox is aware of in which Smith fingered the pharmaceutical industry. If you ignore Smith's claim that "no specific reference was made to money" and that there's "no need" for "a criminal investigation"—admittedly, it's difficult to do—Smith's pointing the finger at drug companies is consistent with his recantation's emphasis on the innocence of House members ("no member of Congress made an offer of financial assistance") and its failure specifically to exonerate industry lobbyists. It's conceivable, therefore, that what we have is a scandal solely concerning a lobbyist or lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry.
In the absence of conclusive evidence, however, two considerations stop Chatterbox from exonerating House members, and especially the House leadership.
The first is that Smith's earlier comments seemed to be directed mostly at House leaders. Although Smith explicitly stated early on that Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (along with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson) were not the folks he was talking about, the original Associated Press story about the strong-arming had Smith (via paraphrase) pointing the finger at "House GOP leaders." In a Nov. 24 press release, Smith railed against the "arm-twisting" he was subjected to and then quoted at length a passage from a Washington Post story focused on how Hastert and Thompson worked him over. And a transcript of Smith's "$100,000-plus" interview (click here, then scroll down to the update) places the bribe in the middle of a discussion of the pressure House members applied that night.
(Hastert's press spokesman John Feehery told Chatterbox today, "We've maintained, and I think Congressman Smith has maintained, that Congressman Hastert talked to [Smith] only about the legislation. [Smith] has put out statements saying no one offered him money, and that's what we believe to be true. ... What Congressman Smith has said on different occasions is something you need to take up with his office.")
The second reason not to exonerate House members is that lobbyists were not on the floor of the House that night. With the exception of former representatives and senators, lobbyists are never allowed on the House floor or even in the cloakroom just off the floor. Former representatives and senators who are lobbyists, though allowed on the House floor, are forbidden to lobby on the House floor, and according to political scientist Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, these privileged former legislators tend not to wander onto the floor at all during high-profile votes.
The no-lobbyists rule is significant because most versions of Smith's story prior to his recantation suggest the bribe occurred on the House floor. This is rendered explicitly in a column by Robert Novak that Smith, speaking through an aide, told Chatterbox was "basically accurate":
On the House floor [italics Chatterbox's], Nick Smith was told business interests would give his son $100,000 in return for his father's vote. When he still declined, fellow Republican House members told him they would make sure Brad Smith never came to Congress.
Chatterbox therefore continues to believe that, in addition to any bribes pharmaceutical lobbyists may have offered directly to Smith, a current member of Congress offered $100,000 in campaign contributions—most likely, from those same pharmaceutical lobbyists—in exchange for Smith's vote. Of course, even if what we have here is "just" a case of attempted bribery by the drug companies, it still warrants our continued attention.
[Update, Dec. 9: Novak, who broke the story that Smith had been offered $100,000 for Brad's campaign if he voted for the Medicare bill, said on CNN's Capital Gang Dec. 6 that the $100,000 "was mentioned by other members of Congress, I understand, not in the leadership." Presumably Novak has that from Smith. Novak also said that the $100,000 offer "was not bribery." He should read the statute.]
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.