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Jewish World Review Dec. 8, 2003 / 13 Kislev, 5764

Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom
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Squeezed by the politics of business | In the end, it doesn't really matter if it was a bribe, a strong-arm or a good old-fashioned threat. What happened recently to a Michigan congressman was enough to make you give up on politics - if you haven't already.

Nick Smith is not a major domo in Congress. You probably haven't heard of him unless you live in his district in south-central Michigan. He isn't a media lightning rod like Tom DeLay or Nancy Pelosi. But he counts. One district, one vote.

And recently, the 69-year-old Smith - who plans to retire next year and, presumably, knows something about seniors' health benefits - wanted to vote against the Medicare bill. He thought it was too expensive.

But Smith is a Republican, and most Republicans wanted this bill to pass, for several reasons - including the boost it would give President Bush for his re-election campaign. The bill also was a boon to the health care industry and U.S. business, two entities that have been smiling ever since Bush took over the White House.

On the night of the vote, Nick Smith sat on the floor of the House, deliberating. And there, apparently, something happened. The way Smith first put it was "bribes and special deals were offered to convince members to vote yes."

Later he softened that to say no member of Congress actually offered money, but some said "they would work against Brad if I voted no." Brad Smith, a 42-year-old attorney, plans on running for his father's seat next year.

Why he wants it, I don't know.

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"My understanding is that it was industry groups who said there would be substantial support for my campaign if my Dad would change his vote," Brad Smith told me last week.

"Money," I said.


"And the threats to 'bury' you if your dad voted no?"

"Well, yes, I did hear some members said they wouldn't support anybody who opposed this bill. . There's nothing illegal about that. But it was too heavy-handed. It was the most intense pressure my father had experienced in 40 years of public service."

It's called hardball.

It is not pretty.

But it is the way it works. In the last few days, with the story spreading like a virus, the Smiths have denied initial reports that a $100,000 bribe was offered. They claim no actual member of Congress offered, you know, any actual, you know, greenbacks.

It doesn't matter. What you read between the lines is this: These officials we elect to represent our interests are so much more concerned with their own power and their own pockets that they will cannibalize a member of their own party if it means they get their way.

And you wonder why Americans are cynical about their government.

Ask yourselves the following: Do you know how campaign financing works? Do you know how the parties distribute money? Do you know how a lobbyist gets to a Congressman? Have you ever read a congressional bill from beginning to end?

Chances are you said "no" to everything. And that, sadly, is what our politicians are counting on. Most Americans are too busy picking up the kids and getting off to work to spend time looking over the shoulders of their elected officials. What gets buried in the details and the backdoor deals remains just that, buried.

But believe me, the lobbyists know the details. Big Business knows the details. And yes, our Congresspeople know the details. They just keep them quiet and bank on your ignorance.

What made Nick Smith notable was that his story found its way to the public. Here was a rare brave guy who not only voted his conscience, but was willing to say he was politically bullied - out loud, where we can hear it - and of course, the minute he said it, the pressure doubled on him to backtrack.

He should name names. They all should. They won't. The saddest part of this coercion story isn't that it came out - it's that there are so many others that never will.

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Comment on JWR contributor Mitch Albom's column by clicking here. You may purchase his latest book, "The Five People You Meet in Heaven", by clickingHERE. (Sales help fund JWR.)


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