Pay to Play in the USA: A Condensed History of Big Money Influence

Pay to Play in the USA: A Condensed History of Big Money Influence

December 9 marked International Anti-Corruption Day (IACD). You might’ve missed it, because it’s hard to find on many calendars. IACD was established in 2003 by the United Nations to highlight how corruption hinders progress in healthcare, education, justice, and other critical aspects of society.

With this topic so timely, let’s take a look at some notorious examples of corruption and influence peddling — aka “pay to play politics” — throughout American history and see if we’ve learned anything.

The Oregon Trail of Corruption

Back in 1870, numerous Oregonian officials and others were indicted for illegally helping Oregon & California Railroad acquire 3 million acres of federal land. The corruption was so widespread that even U.S. Attorney John Hicklin Hall, originally tasked with investigating the case, was himself convicted of failing to prosecute fraud and of blackmailing political opponents. The initial 1,000 indictments were eventually whittled down to just 35, and few officials were convicted and incarcerated.

Booze Breath and Taxes

It started as an effort to raise money for President Ulysses Grant’s reelection in 1872. Public officials, in cahoots with representative from the whiskey industry, added a secret tax to the price of whiskey. The problem was, they kept that extra money for themselves. Eventually the “Whiskey Ring” was taken down by Grant’s treasury secretary. A total of 300 people were arrested, and only one lucky person was not convicted.



This cartoon from 1889 shows oil, coal, sugar, and other industries have long wielded power over the U.S. government.


Fall by the Wayside

“Drill baby, drill!” That could’ve been the motto of Albert Fall. In 1922 Fall accepted $400,000 — close to $6 million in 2017 value — from big oil interests in order to secure a drilling site in Wyoming. As President Warren Harding’s interior secretary, Fall was helping an industry loot the land that was his job to protect. Shame! If you remember reading about a “Teapot Dome Scandal” in history or civics class, this was the one. (Incidentally, the case also inspired the famous movie quote, “I drink your milkshake!”)

Born to Be Wild Bill

William “Wild Bill” Langer, two-term North Dakota governor during the ‘30s, had an interesting way of raising money for his party, the now-defunct Nonpartisan League (NPL). As the state’s big boss, he required every state employee to donate part of their paycheck to the NPL. When some complained, Langer declared North Dakota as an independent nation, instituted martial law, and holed up in his mansion. A former attorney general should know better!

Langer was eventually tried, convicted, and sentenced to 18 months in prison. But he had solid support from his constituents, who eventually reelected him governor, and later gave him a U.S. Senate seat. Who says crime doesn’t pay?

It Ain’t Over Till the Dead Presidents Sing

Sadly, not all instances of big money influence on government are from days gone by. It continues today in various forms. One of the most egregious examples impacts the vaping industry and the lives of all who are looking for an alternative to combustible tobacco cigarettes …

Checks, Drugs, and Tobacco Rolled

Big Tobacco and Big Pharma play our elected officials like a well-tuned fiddle. What many don’t realize is the extent to which these industries lobby (to influence using money) politicians. The numbers are as shocking as they are telling: since 1990, more than $40 million in “contributions” from Big Tobacco and well over $200 million in “contributions” from Big Pharma. Both industries want to put an end to vaping, either because of the potential loss of revenue from smokers or from those trying to quit smoking with prescription drugs. With the vaping industry lacking such deep pockets, who will Congress listen to?

And there are other major issues impacting both vapers and non-vapers that show the ongoing influence of big money on government. The FCC’s plan to end net neutrality is a timely example. Does anyone believe that will benefit the average person? Or that public officials won’t benefit from such a gift to ISPs?

Pay to play is alive and well in the USA.

Speak Up or Lose Out

As citizens, it’s important we constantly remind our public officials why they were elected: to serve OUR interests, not those of special interests, or their own. Call them, email them, and post on their social media pages. It’s your right and responsibility.

The opinions and other information contained in these blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Nicopure Labs, LLC, owner of the Halo and Halo Cigs marks.

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Patrick Moody 66 posts

Patrick is overjoyed to be a professional storyteller, aka writer, as he’s terrible at math.

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