Why isn’t bribery illegal in the United States? You would think there would be a law against it, wouldn’t you? As of now, there isn’t one–not a real one. There is a pretend law, written to protect the guilty and bamboozle the credulous.

As this law stands, to get arrested for giving or taking a bribe, the lobbyist must say to the politician, “I am giving you this bag full of money to pay you to vote for this tax loophole or that patent protection for my client, the Swag and Boodle Corporation.” Anything short of a transaction thus phrased is not, legally at least, bribery.

When such conversations take place, who is there to listen? Perhaps the National Security Agency–but, we are told, it only concerns itself with terrorists, so unless the lobbyist also has a bomb strapped to his waist, the likelihood of the arrangement getting to a court of law is between slim and none.

Here is an example of a nonbribe for which the Honorable Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House of Representatives, will not spend one hour in jail. The Chicago Tribune reported this week that on June 3, 2003, Hastert held a fundraising event at Signatures restaurant, the deluxe Washington watering hole that Jack Abramoff appears to have run at a loss to corrupt federal officials. At Hastert’s bash, Abramoff, who picked up the cost of the affair, also donated $20,000. One week later the Honorable Hastert sent Interior Secretary Gale Norton a letter asking her to go along with one of Abramoff’s Indian casino gambling schemes. Money changed hands, favors were done. But this is not a bribe, this is legal, this is OK. This stinks, and there is no law against it.

If a lobbyist pays for a senator’s vacation, sets up a no-show job for the child or spouse of a member of Congress or arranges for $100,000 to get dropped into the campaign kitty and says he’s doing it out of deep and long-felt admiration for the legislator’s commitment to the American people, such actions demonstrate a commendable interest in current affairs. If, later on, the same lobbyist drops by the senator’s or Congressperson’s office on a purely informative errand to persuade the legislator to support that little amendment to the highway bill or the defense bill for the Swag and Boodle Corporation, that is called petitioning a public official, a Constitutionally protected activity, not arranging for a prepaid service.

It takes a nation corrupted by legal reasoning, and the lawyers who do the reasoning, to buy such an argument. Our current bribery law, such as it is or isn’t, flies in the face of reality and political experience going back to or before the founding of the Roman Republic.

There is no bribery in the United States because bribery has been defined out of existence. Anywhere else in the world, providing public officials and government administrators with meals, lodging, transportation, vacations and literally hundreds of millions of dollars in money for political activities is considered bribery. And it is illegal, even in places like Egypt, Russia and China. That they don’t enforce their bribery laws is different from America, where we get around that obstacle by not having any.

Because the corruption laws are weak to nonexistent, bribery scandals surface about once a generation. They only break into the daylight because the principals are so imbecilically intoxicated by money and power they succeed at the impossible: They get themselves snared in the trammels of the law.

The impossible having happened with Abramoff, politicians are running over one another’s heels to give back or donate to charity at least some of the bribe money. President Bush, for instance, is donating $6,000 to the American Heart Association, a sum representing a small fraction of what is currently known he got from Abramoff. The ever-more-honorable Denny Hastert is disgorging a larger amount, as if that means it makes everything all right (all it means is they were stupid enough to get caught out in the open, where the sun shines).

Some of these politicians are acting like bold rogues, neither contrite nor repentant. Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic minority leader who was into Abramoff for $60,000, isn’t giving a penny of it back. “I don’t know him,” Reid says of his suddenly anonymous financial benefactor. “I don’t want to know him. I know nothing about it other than what I read in the newspaper…. This is a Republican scandal.”

Harry, you’re going to have to do better than that. Of course, you don’t want to know him, but Harry, this isn’t a Republican scandal. It isn’t a Democratic scandal. It’s a national scandal.