The many ways in which money is exchanged for access to people with political power in Washington will be in focus beginning Thursday, when the Republican-led House of Representatives is set to begin an investigation into President Joe Biden.
The investigation, meant to seek evidence the president committed acts that might warrant impeaching him and removing him from office, will look closely at the activities of the president's son, Hunter Biden.
The younger Biden has a long history of entering into lucrative business deals with foreign companies, appearing in a number of instances to have traded on his family's name and his access to his father while earning millions of dollars in fees.
Hunter Biden's business activities shine a light on a practice, common in Washington, of trading money for access. The capital is full of a small army of lobbyists and consultants who are often hired, at least in part, for their ability to get key figures in government to answer a phone call, take a meeting or appear at an event.
While viewed as unseemly by many, the money-for-access trade has long been a feature of political life in Washington and is legally distinct from, for example, the crime of bribery.
All too prevalent
'Unfortunately, paying for access is a phenomenon that has long been too prevalent in Washington and has become even more so in recent years as laws have loosened," Noah Bookbinder, president of Washington-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, told VOA in an email.
"Lobbying is based around access, and recent Supreme Court decisions have provided other legal avenues for paying for access,' he said. 'The court's campaign finance decisions starting with Citizens United have allowed for vast amounts of undisclosed money to flow into politics, often with a heightened version of the expectation of access that traditionally accompanies large campaign contributions."
The Supreme Court has set the bar high for convicting a politician of accepting bribes.
FILE - Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks outside the Supreme Court in Washington, April 27, 2016.
In 2014, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell was indicted and convicted on federal corruption charges. Prosecutors demonstrated that he and his wife had accepted $135,000 in gifts from businessman Jonnie Williams. They then showed that McDonnell subsequently set up meetings for Williams with state employees and arranged for him to meet with other government officials important to his company's prospects.
The conviction was upheld by an appeals court. But in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned it, ruling that McDonnell's actions did not rise to the level of "official acts."
Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said, "There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the government's boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute."
In the ruling, Roberts argued that if arranging meetings and doing other services for supporters and donors counts as bribery, "officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance."
"The court's decision in the McDonnell case essentially allowed cash and gifts in exchange for access to officials, which is a particularly distressing development," said Bookbinder.
In the impeachment inquiry, House investigators, led by Representative James Comer, will be looking for evidence that President Biden, while serving as vice president from 2009 to 2017, took actions that benefited his son's business associates in a way that violated the public trust.
FILE - Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., speaks at the 138th annual Fancy Farm Picnic, Aug. 4, 2018, in Fancy Farm, Ky.
Republicans, formally and informally, have been investigating Hunter Biden's activities for years, dating to at least 2019, when his father announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination the following year. Those investigations picked up speed when the Republicans took control of the House in 2022.
To date, the inquiries have uncovered extensive foreign business dealings worth tens of millions of dollars by Hunter Biden and other members of the president's family and their associates. They have also documented several occasions on which Hunter Biden was able to get clients into the same room with his father, or on phone calls with him.
They have presented no evidence, though, that as vice president, Joe Biden took any official actions intended to benefit those clients, or that he personally received any of the money his relatives were paid.
Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution holds that federal officials, including presidents, "shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."
"To the extent that the House Republicans have managed to articulate any theory of why they think President Biden might be impeachable ... it appears to be in the area of bribery," Frank O. Bowman III, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Law, told VOA.
However, while he said Hunter Biden's behavior has been "disgraceful and somewhat shameless," it doesn't appear to rise to the level of bribery.
Bowman, author of the book High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump, said that while it is clear that a politician who takes official actions in exchange for payments to a member of his family can be charged with bribery, there is so far no evidence that this is what happened in the case at hand.
A bribe, he said, first needs to include the demand for or promise of some sort of payment. "Then, critically, you have to establish that the person who either got it or demanded it did something or offered to do something in his or her official capacity in return for the receipt. And at this point, of course, the Republicans have gotten none of that."
It is important to note that impeachment hearings are not criminal trials, and the House of Representatives is not required to find that an official committed an actual crime to impeach that person. The phrase in the Constitution's impeachment clause, "high crimes and misdemeanors," has long been understood to encompass violations of the public trust that are not specifically criminal in nature.
"It's quite clear that the Constitution's authors designed it to cover executive actions that, on their face, may be the use of an authorized executive power, but are done for illicit purposes," said Gary Schmitt, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Schmitt told VOA, however, that past presidential impeachment investigations have historically been predicated on evidence that an impeachable act has been committed. In this case, he said, the investigation appears to be not in response to evidence of wrongdoing by President Biden, but rather a means of looking for such evidence in the first place.
"I can't remember an impeachment where [the House] began an impeachment inquiry without there being more direct evidence of potential wrongdoing," Schmitt said.