Let's Load Up the Jails with Politicians

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The bill titled "Ben Nelson Act to Ensure Political Integrity" is so stupid everyone assumed it's a joke. But it turns out, Rep. Bill Dunn, the sponsor, is serious about it. Why are we ever surprised when our lawmakers are serious about doing something stupid?

The bill would make it a illegal--a Class A misdemeanor--for any public servant to trade votes for special budgetary exemptions or fiscal benefits for his or her district. That's a slap at Nelson's "Cornhusker Kickback," the deal he cut for Nebraska's Medicaid exemption in the health care reform bill. Basically, this bill criminalizes politics itself. It's unconstitutional and completely unenforceable.

But with a straight face, Dunn stood before a House subcommittee this afternoon to make his case:

"Currently in the law, it says a legislator cannot take a bribe. You can't give someone money to buy their vote. And what House Bill 3123 would do would be to go ahead and recognize that there's other ways to purchase a vote."

Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, asked the obvious question: "Doesn't this become a license for any political decision to become a bribery investigation?"

And Rep. Henry Fincher, D-Cookeville, went so far as to say he doesn't see anything wrong with trading votes.

"We're insulting a guy here who's a United States senator, Ben Nelson. I don't know the guy, and I don't feel comfortable insulting him like this just gratuitously to further someone else's agenda. Frankly, I don't think it's wrong. If you don't have strong convictions on a bill that's before you, I don't see why it's not what people sent you down here to do to try to work things out for your district. We're making this the same crime as drunk driving, which kills people."

A vote was delayed today. But despite these objections, it looks like the bill could make it out of the subcommittee. Silly as it may sound, anyone who votes against it risks attacks in the next election campaign for favoring bribery. In the pressroom, we've been debating how legislative leaders will kill this ridiculous thing. We've decided they should slap an enormous fiscal note on it. The cost of all the prosecutions under this bill would bankrupt state government.

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