I’ve just finished reading Peter Schweizer’s book, Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets.  It is solidly researched and loaded with facts to back up Schweizer’s claim that Washington politicians are extorting money from Americans for their own benefit.

Political “contributions,” Schweizer notes, are often viewed as bribes given to politicians in exchange for favorable treatment.  In fact, these transfers of funds are more typically demanded by politicians, either in exchange for legislative, regulatory, or other benefits, or in an attempt by the payee to avoid being harmed by some government action.

Bribery and extortion look similar, the difference being who initiates the transaction.  Schweizer argues that as politics has evolved in Washington, it is the “permanent political class” who demands payment for the services they provide.

The book is filled with specific examples of cases where legislation is held up until those who favor the legislation pay a sufficient amount to the  campaigns or PACs of legislators who then will move it to a vote.  More perniciously, legislation is often designed to harm specific groups, who then are strong-armed into paying up to stop the legislation from going forward.  This is how legislators can “milk” citizens for more money.

“Double-milkers” can raise even more money.  If there are interests on both sides of an issue, legislators can extort funds from both.

Schweizer takes aim at “tax extenders,” which extend certain tax provisions for an additional time period, often a year.  Why not make those provisions, which are routinely passed, a permanent part of tax law?  Schweizer notes that by making them subject to renewal, funds can be extorted from interests on an annual basis, making them more lucrative for the permanent political class.

Schweizer gives details on the ways that politicians have used the funds they have raised for their own personal consumption, and how their extortion extends to getting lucrative jobs for their friends and family members.

Why are laws so complex and often incomprehensible?  Schweizer notes that by writing them this way, they are subject to interpretation, which benefits the permanent political class in several ways.  Staffers who write the laws often “cash in” by taking high-priced jobs advising firms covered by the laws on how to comply.

Incomprehensible laws also create substantial discretion on enforcement, and Schweizer gives lots of evidence to support the view that political cronies often escape enforcement, while political enemies are targeted.  People who pay in to PACs and political campaigns can avoid enforcement actions that are targeted at those who do not.

Schweizer comes up with convincing evidence throughout the book, while noting that evidence is not always obvious to the casual observer because the political exchanges are implied, and understood by those who work the system.  Nobody says, “Unless you pay me, your legislation will not come up for a vote;” the players just know that if they pay, it will; if they don’t pay, it won’t.

Sometimes politicians are more forthright in their comments.  Schweizer quotes President Obama saying, “We are going to punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us.”  But this is almost always implied rather than stated so explicitly.

I can’t do justice to this book in a short blog post.  It is an eye-opening read, backed up with facts and extensively researched and footnoted.  Take a look, if you want to see a depressing description of the way politics in Washington really works.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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