Thursday, February 12, 2009

On vote-trading: John Wildermuth's epic journalism FAIL

Attention San Francisco Chronicle: the truth called. They want Page B-6 of yesterday's paper back.

You see, in recent days, the Courage Campaign has come out with a new action asking Attorney General Jerry Brown to investigate Republican lawmakers for potential violations of the California Penal Code regarding vote-trading.

In comes John Wildermuth to save the day, and tell the Courage Campaign that they need to be careful:

You have to be careful what you wish for in politics, and Democrat-friendly groups looking to bash Republican legislators over state budget delays should remember that.


Well, John, a couple of points are in order here. I would say that the first one is your use of the word "bash." Now, in a political journalism context, "bash" is frequently used to refer to one side attacking another side on its policy positions, and implies a typical political attack. However, the Courage Campaign is not bashinig Republican legislators. They are encouraging the Attorney General to investigate a possible crime. And what are they going after? Not "state budget delays", John. The "delay" has nothing to do with it. It is, rather, allegations of vote-trading, which is illegal under the California Penal Code. After all, the Republicans appear to have made offers that they will vote for a budget compromise if the Democrats vote to gut certain labor and environmental regulations.

So, that's for starters: John, you're portraying this as typical partisan run-of-the-mill politics, when in reality it's anything but. But let's move on, shall we?

"The California Penal Code explicitly prohibits this type of vote-trading, and the attorney general is duty-bound to investigate this felonious activity," said Rick Jacobs, founder of the progressive Courage Campaign.

People on both sides of the political aisle say Jacobs seems to be attacking the type of horse-trading that goes on every day in Sacramento, Washington and every city hall and state capital in the country.


Now, there's a reason I titled this post "epic journalism fail": because that's exactly what your piece is, John. I would have you notice that nowhere do you actually mention what California's Penal Code actually says on the subject:

86. Every Member of either house of the Legislature, or any member of the legislative body of a city, county, city and county, school district, or other special district, who asks, receives, or agrees to receive, any bribe, upon any understanding that his or her official vote, opinion, judgment, or action shall be influenced thereby, or shall give, in any particular manner, or upon any particular side of any question or matter upon which he or she may be required to act in his or her official capacity, or gives, or offers or promises to give, any official vote in consideration that another Member of the Legislature, or another member of the legislative body of a city, county, city and county, school district, or other special district shall give this vote either upon the same or another question, is punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years and, in cases in which no bribe has been actually received, by a restitution fine of not less than two thousand dollars ($2,000) or not more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or, in cases in which a bribe was actually received, by a restitution fine of at least the actual amount of the bribe received or two thousand dollars ($2,000), whichever is greater, or any larger amount of not more than double the amount of any bribe received or ten thousand dollars ($10,000), whichever is greater.


I have bolded the relevant section of the text. It's the part, John, that says, basically, that trading votes, either on the same question (i.e., bill) or a different question (i.e., "I'll vote for yours if you vote for mine") is illegal.

So I'll be completely honest here, John. I don't honestly give a damn if you claim it's the type of thing that goes on every day in Sacramento and Washington--and the reason I don't is that if you're going to write an article critical of the Courage Campaign's call for an investigation, you might actually want to discuss the merits of the case. I'm no lawyer, John, but generally, the way the law works is: state the law; state the facts; apply the law to the facts. And it doesn't matter whether "it happens all the time" or "all the kids are doing it" or any other such excuse or rationale. The only questions are: what is the law, and what are the facts?

My recommendation, John, is that if you have a problem with the Penal Code barring political horse-trading, take it up with the Penal Code. But critiquing the Courage Campaign for actually asking that the Code be enforced? That's just weak.

And I would end there, John, but your epic journalism fail is not yet done. I submit as evidence:

Under the interpretation by Jacobs and the unions, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and her GOP counterparts could be looking at prison time for negotiating Wednesday's agreement on President Obama's stimulus package.


FAIL! John, I did mention, did I not, that this is the California Penal Code, not the US Code? And that, according to the Penal Code, the law applies to "Every Member of either house of the Legislature, or any member of the legislative body of a city, county, city and county, school district, or other special district"? So, no, Nancy Pelosi and her GOP colleagues could not be prosecuted under section 86?

And, John, even if there were some vague ambiguity about that, the United States Constitution would put that to rest--specifically, Article 1, Section 6:

The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States. They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.


That provision, of course, as clarified by subsequent interpretations such as the 1966 US v. Johnson ruling, clarify completely that members of Congress cannot be prosecuted for any speech and debate (for example, negotiating the stimulus bill?) that they engage in as a part of their official duties.

I bring it up, John, because you're not only trying to compare apples to oranges. It's worse than that. It's worse because what you think is an apple is actually...say...a kiwi. And that, John, is a pure and unadulterated journalism FAIL. Until you know more about the law and the Constitution than I do, I recommend you stop writing about it for a major newspaper.

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