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How our Permanent Political Class Resembles Organized Crime

Review of Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets by Peter Schweizer. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) 256 pages; $27.00.

If you want to understand how our federal government operates, you might learn more by studying the Mafia instead of civics. In Extortion, Peter Schweizer offers examples and evidence of how the permanent political class is run like an organized crime ring. Shake-downs, protection money, and political slush funds for private use are not only legal, but it's a thriving racket. And it's the sellers of influence who are the biggest benefactors, more so than those trying to buy influence.

The common consensus on political corruption: If outside influence and money is limited, the system will change for the better. Our politicians will in turn be purer and in a better position to represent the will of the people over moneyed interests. Opponents of the recent Supreme Court decision lifting the ban on limits for certain campaign contributions lament that it will only exacerbate political corruption. Schweizer turns the argument on its head, clearly pointing out that it's Washington that has mastered the art of corporate shake-down, and politicians even schedule votes by their ability to increase the level of extortion through legislative threat. CEOs have expressed frustration at the system saying even by infusing massive amounts of cash into both political parties, the problems aren't fixed. The only winners are those soliciting the funds, the permanent political class. The late economist Peter Aranson agreed, "The real market for contributions is one of 'extortion' by those who hold a monopoly on the use of coercion – the officeholders." Schweizer simply states, "The assumption is that we need to protect politicians from outside influences. But how about protecting ourselves from the politicians?"

Schweizer explains how current Speaker of the House John Boehner is master of the "toll booth" tactic. The speaker or committee leaders purposefully use this method to delay votes on the House floor for the sole purpose of soliciting funds. But paying the "toll" doesn't just mean cutting a check; it can include the understanding of hiring former congressional staffers and friends. Laws are often so complex that the entire practice of hiring these staffers is a financial bonanza for those who wrote the regulations. If they are the only ones who understand it, corporations and Wall Street will pay top dollar to remain compliant.

Political disputes are often choreographed by Congressional members for the sole purpose of maximizing contributions. "Double-milking" is a common practice too, if there is interest on multiple sides; members can milk funds from multiple sources. All that needs to be done is to keep quiet about where you stand on the bill. "No matter who wins the math, everyone gets paid," adds Schweizer.

Even when ethics reforms are put in place it has little impact on the political class -- they just rewrite new laws to their advantage. Change parties in power in hopes of relief from more government? Schweizer explains the falsehood in the notion:

The rampant extortion in Washington explains why government continues to grow, regardless of who is in power. And it also explains why government is getting meaner. It's more lucrative for the permanent political class that way. Just as the Mafia likes to expand its turf to seek more targets for extortion, an expanding government increases the number of targets for a shakedown. And the meaner government gets, the more often threats of extortion are successful.

Those looking to reform the system may get frustrated by how difficult it is to change Washington. "Those who wonder why the American tax code is so complex, convoluted, and constantly changing fail to appreciate what a wonderful tool for extortion it is," declares Schweizer.

Some Political Action Committees can be liquidated into personal cash once taxes are paid on them. Congressmen can place their family on the PAC payroll, providing relatives with a huge salary. Members can make their spouse the treasurer of their PAC and give them a salary of over $100,000. Congressman Charlie Rangel paid his son $79,560 to make a website for the National Leadership PAC. The site was slapped together in a few hours but wasn't functional. "One web designer said the website was so bad that the fee should not have been more than $100," explained Schweizer. PACS too, are routinely used to fund lavish personal trips and a luxurious lifestyle. Candidates can loan cash to their campaign and enrich themselves off the interest they earn.

Schweizer documents a grim picture of our national political leadership. It reflects the core of Lord Acton's famous dictum, "All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." Extortion is a follow up to Throw Them All Out, in which the author fired his first broadsides against the political corruption that plagues our nation's capital. It's another powerful reminder that one of the fundamental problems with Washington, and why it doesn't change, relates directly to the entrenched political power that resides over it.

While Schweizer could touch more on addressing the culture that permits this to happen, he should be applauded for raising awareness. Most of America has little to no understanding of how the system is used to enrich and protect those with the power, and certainly have no understanding of the complexity of political finance laws.

At the end of the book, the author offers his own suggestions for reform. He suggests action like banning the solicitation of funds while Congress is in session and banning certain kind of PACs that allow for members to turn campaign money into income and lifestyle perks.

The evidence in the book is well documented, overwhelming, and depressing. It's a window into a kind of system that no longer serves us but that we now serve. After reading this, it should be clear the entrenched power in Washington has grown too big, with little interest for the liberty of the individual, or the Republic. The Roman orator Tacitus was right when he said, "The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government." That by itself speaks to the dire mess we face.