In the industrial Midwest, after multiple ballots, the Republican convention finally chooses its nominee. Operatives for the frontrunner—a nationally known, polarizing figure who has infuriated Democrats with his abrasive rhetoric on the most divisive, racially-charged issue of the day—flood the city “with money to corrupt, with bullies to intimidate and with houries to seduce.” As for his principal opponent, rumors persist that the candidate’s coalition is forged on promises of cabinet appointments in exchange for votes. A journalist rails:
The lesson to the Nation … is the necessity for the abolition of the Caucus System, which, in whatever party organization operative, is a system of swindling, by which the people are defrauded out of the effective exercise of the right of suffrage. There is no honesty in caucuses … The revenues of King Caucus are corruption funds … If a Republican form of government is to be preserved … the people must make a bonfire of his throne.
Can Chicago’s experience in 1860 repeat itself in Cleveland in 2016? One recent commentator suggested that, after the first ballot, presidential contenders “would engage in a fierce lobbying battle for delegates, wooing them with ideological sweet talk, political promises and anything else they have to offer.” Another projected that, on the third ballot, the “delegations will be a hotbed of rumors, deals and rumored deals.” A third suggested that candidates may lure support by offering Cabinet posts, lucrative consulting contracts, and hard cash for votes. One need not watch House of Cards to imagine candidates, top aides, party leaders, and donors fanning out across the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena and hitting the phones to determine the cost of securing the support of delegates, party leaders, and donors. From this perspective, the issues of money and access loom much larger than when conventions were simply derided as “unabashed festivals of corporate cash.” The restrictions that Congress placed on lobbyist-paid events seem quaint when applied to what some think may happen in Cleveland.
But the law is far less forgiving in 2016 than in 1860. Had Lincoln’s convention manager and future Supreme Court appointee, David Davis, been active today, he might have found his way to the Court as a defendant instead of a justice. The federal criminal code at 18 U.S.C. § 599 prohibits candidates from promising to appoint, or using their influence to appoint, any person to any public or private position or employment, “for the purpose of procuring support in his candidacy.” An accompanying provision establishes criminal consequences for promising employment, positions, contracts, appointments or other benefits resulting from congressional action as consideration or reward for political activity or support in connection with general elections, primary elections, or political conventions or caucuses. The Hobbs Act bars extortion affecting interstate commerce and has been used to prosecute various cases of public corruption. Multiple provisions prohibit individuals from offering cash or things of value in exchange for votes. And, finally, the campaign finance laws create avenues for identifying and prosecuting unreported or misreported contributions.