Political contributions -- what's bribery?

I’m motivated to try to support a political cause at the local level and realize I don’t understand exactly whether the definition of “bribery” includes various of the things I am contemplating doing. I’d like to communicate to my local representatives that I favor this cause, and that I care enough to vote on this basis and to make campaign contributions. It’s the linkage between the cause and my contributing that I fear constitutes bribery.

I am not proposing trying to contract with a politician that if they agree to vote in a certain way I will give them money. That that is bribery is clear. What I want is for politicians to understand that I really care about the issue. I want to clarify whether my expression of caring should be limited to letter writing and perhaps actually visiting them (as I say this is at the local level) while I separate and do not communicate the fact of my donation, even though in my mind it is a good expression of my level of caring about the cause. FWIW the amount of money I anticipate giving is tens or hundreds of dollars.

Two gleanings from the Wikipedia article on “Bribery”:

“Bribery, a form of corruption, is an act implying money or gift giving that alters the behavior of the recipient. Bribery constitutes a crime and is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as the offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of any item of value to influence the actions of an official or other person in charge of a public or legal duty. The bribe is the gift bestowed to influence the recipient’s conduct. It may be any money, good, right in action, property, preferment, privilege, emolument, object of value, advantage, or merely a promise or undertaking to induce or influence the action, vote, or influence of a person in an official or public capacity.” I think this means that if I tell a politician I contribute to their campaign because they are, for example, progressive, then this is bribery if the politician has a thought process like “my being progressive pleases my constituents enough that they are motivated to donate, and so I should keep being progressive”. But I am surprised that this rises to the level of bribery.

“Politicians receive campaign contributions and other payoffs from powerful corporations, organizations or individuals in return for making choices in the interests of those parties, or in anticipation of favorable policy.” I read this to include donating to the campaign of candidates because I like their positions (I give to somebody because I anticipate they will make policy favorable to my interests, such as for example environmentalism). This surprises me too.

From the Wikipedia article on “Campaign finance”:

“Although the political science literature indicates that most contributors give to support parties or candidates with whom they are already in agreement, there is wide public perception that donors expect illegitimate government favors in return (such as specific legislation being enacted or defeated), so some have come to equate campaign finance with political corruption and bribery.” Getting an illegitimate favor in return for a gift seems much more specific and much dirtier, to me, than telling a politician that I hope they move further in one direction and that I care enough to donate. Am I fooling myself, pretending there is a distinction here when there isn’t?

So, my overall questions, which I hope have factual answers, are:

  1. When I wish to aid my favorite political causes by donating to campaigns of politicians who support those causes, and I want the politicians to know which of their positions motivate me to be a supporter, am I contemplating bribery?

  2. If I donate to politicians who support my favorite causes, and as a separate and unconnected act I also write to them and tell them that as a constituent I favor these causes, never linking the donations to the causes in any of my communications, is that bribery?

Just to be clear, I want to be ethical and am questioning where the ethical line is. I don’t want to stretch the border of legality and don’t think I am asking for legal advice. I’m not asking about a legal definition of “bribery”, but rather an ethical one (or a nuanced English language one). I have no interest at all in doing anything illegal or entering the buffer zone between unethical and illegal.


This is ethics, so there is much more fun to be had. You can apply Kallman and Grillo’s informal tests.

[li]Would you prefer to keep quiet about the donation and what you said?[/li][li]Does this pass the Mom Test: Would you tell her? Would she do it?[/li][li]Does this pass the TV Test: Would you tell a nationwide audience?[/li][li]Does this pass the Market Test: Could you advertise the donation to gain a market edge?[/li][li]Does your instinct tell you it is wrong?[/li][li]Does it pass the Smell Test: Does donating and voicing your desire “smell”?[/li][/ul]

You might note that bribery does not just have to be money. Your definition explicitly includes “vote” as an alternative to money. A literal reading therefore says that it is bribery simply to tell a politician that you will vote for them if they support your view. Most of us probably think that this is the entire point of the exercise. :smiley:

It sounds like you are totally in the clear. If you send in a check with a letter that says, “I’m giving you this campaign contribution because I think medical research on my mother’s disease is the most important issue in the world, and I am going to do everything I can to elect people who will support that research!” then you have nothing to worry about, even if the candidate sends a letter back saying, “Thanks for the donation, I support disease research!”

Basically, you would be at risk of bribery to the extent that a quid pro quo is established that clearly linked the exchange of funds for official acts: “If you sponsor this bill, I will donate $2,000.” “Ok, I will sponsor that bill, and I expect your check next week.” Or, conversely, “I am going to hold up that bill you support until my coffers are filled, if you get my drift.” “Ok, we will donate because we need that bill passed.” In those types of cases, watch out.

The Supreme Court has addressed it this way:

O my yes, this IS fun.

Would you prefer to keep quiet about the donation and what you said?
No. I’d post about it on the Web, in fact. Well, with my real name, too.

Does this pass the Mom Test: Would you tell her? Would she do it?
I would tell her. I don’t think she’d do it for this cause because I bet she’d be against the cause, but I think she might conceivably do it for causes she supports. The limiting issue here is that she doesn’t donate or take up causes. I think she might be too unethical to do it, in other words.

Does this pass the TV Test: Would you tell a nationwide audience?

Does this pass the Market Test: Could you advertise the donation to gain a market edge?
Don’t understand this one. What “market” are we talking about? The cause in question doesn’t involve much commerce, at least not any I’m interested in.

Does your instinct tell you it is wrong?
My instinct worries about whether I understand where the line around “bribery” is, but other than that my instinct tells me it would be wrong NOT to do this.

Does it pass the Smell Test: Does donating and voicing your desire “smell”?
No, it would smell NOT to.

Are you actually expecting something in return? Or are you hoping this person will take your feeling into account? Are you purchasing their vote, or are you expressing your personal feelings?

These are the tests Kallman and Grillo provide - they are usually used in engineering ethics questions, but I like them. For an individual that is not in the public eye, this one makes little sense. However imagine you are the CEO of BP. “We donated 10 million dollars to congress critter Joe Easybribe because we believe in deregulation of the oil drilling industry.” Would you put that on a billboard? It isn’t hard to come up with versions that do make sense for the question at hand.

The second one, both questions.

“an honest politician is one who stays bought.” -Anon.