What is a bribe?

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The New York Daily News has a story regarding the tripling of FBI agents working Capitol Hill on their corruption probes. We've all known about Abramoff, Ney, DeLay, Cunningham, and Jefferson for quite some time. But now the number of investigators is expanding some more.


For decades, only one squad in Washington handled corruption cases because the crimes were seen as local offenses handled by FBI field offices in lawmakers' home districts.


But in recent years, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and other abuses of power and privilege have prompted the FBI to assign 37 agents full-time to three new squads in an office near Capitol Hill.


FBI Assistant Director Chip Burrus told The News Monday that he wants to detail even more agents to the Washington field office for a fourth corruption squad because so much wrongdoing is being uncovered.


The story that really caught my eye was a piece in the Boston Globe by Peter Canallos about the seemingly expanding definition of what constitutes bribery post-Bob Ney's conviction. He writes,


Most members of Congress raise money constantly, and the donors are almost by definition people who benefit from particular votes and particular provisions in bills. And while members of Congress know that they must steer clear of any explicit quid pro quos -- promising to take specific actions in exchange for contributions -- they also know that such deals have been almost impossible to prove.


The traditional standard for proving bribery has been that a lawmaker's actions were entirely driven by the campaign contribution, giving senators and representatives plenty of wiggle room to cite other motives for their actions. But Ney pleaded guilty to compromising his ``honest services" as a member of Congress by accepting campaign cash in exchange for official actions, a lower standard for corruption than Washington watchdogs have ever seen before.


So my question is this: Are we seeing before our very eyes a redefinition of what a bribe is in the public realm? With a growing number of federal agents, an insatiable thirst for campaign money, the practice of raising private money for elections may itself come under scrutiny like never before.


I can think of dozens of examples that fit what Bob Ney did -- compromising his services by accepting money for official actions. Most of the time a politician would receive a few bad days in the press. Now they might attract a federal investigation.


What more does it take for Congress to wake up and address the inherent conflict of interest that embodies our campaign finance system? How many more members need to be indicted or convicted of bribery under this ever-expansive definition?


Isn't it time to replace this interested money with a Clean Elections-style public financing system?