Everyone is shocked by Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and his blatant attempt to sell Barack Obama’s senate seat to the highest bidder. But, as Martin Schram points out, a similar kind of shakedown is just our lawmaker’s way of doing business:

Just about every day on Capitol Hill, senators and representatives leave their official Senate and House offices and go to special nearby offices that are not paid for by taxpayers, but by Democratic or Republican campaign committees. (Why? Because it is illegal to use government facilities for soliciting campaign money.) In these privately paid offices, your senators and representatives are handed lists of names and telephone numbers of the lobbyists for special interests that are regulated by the committees and subcommittees on which these members of Congress serve.

The senators and representatives telephone the lobbyists. They tell the lobbyists they have to pay off big debts from their last campaign – or they are facing a tough opponent in the next election – and they need a campaign contribution of, say, $10,000.

Timeout. Let’s see how this is looking from the other end of the telephone line.

We are now in the office of a lobbyist for a big-industry special interest. He has gotten this phone call from a senator who chairs a subcommittee that can be crucial to this industry. First, the lobbyist does not miss the irony (see also: duplicity) in the laws governing what is taking place. The senators and representatives have righteously banned themselves from accepting a steak dinner that is paid for by this lobbyist. But Congress carefully kept it legal for a senator or representative to ask (and sometimes demand) $10,000 in campaign money from this same lobbyist.

Now, the lobbyist has no immediate legislative problem that requires help from this senator. But he knows that something is sure to come up in the future – and when it does, he’ll need to meet with this senator or a top staff member to make a pitch for help – maybe a clause in an amendment, maybe a telephone call to urge an agency regulator (whose budget is also controlled by this committee) to ease up.

All the players know the game: When campaign money is solicited, a specific quid pro quo is not discussed; that would be illegal. But all players know that campaign money ultimately buys access. And that’s when the specifics are discussed.

“It is like when you ante up at a poker game,” one leading Washington industry lobbyist told me. “You do it not because you know you will have great cards coming. You do it just so you can stay in the game to see a few cards.”

Christmas for Iraqi Christians

Improved security in Iraq has meant many Iraqi Christians are coming back after fleeing their country and are practicing their faith openly, to the point of publicly celebrating Christmas, with the new Iraqi government going so far as to declare it a national holiday. From Greatest gift for Iraqi Christians — returning home – Los Angeles Times:

Hundreds of Christians gathered to celebrate Christmas in Baghdad, most acknowledging that improved security conditions have allowed them to move more freely throughout the city after returning from years-long exiles in Syria, Egypt, Jordan or Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region.

In the Christian neighborhood of Karada on Thursday, a Santa Claus handed out religious CDs and pamphlets, including “25 Stories From the Bible” and “The Greatest Gift.” In recent years, such an act could have resulted in death.

Christians are estimated to make up less than 3% of Iraq’s population of 27 million, and some reports say that about half fled after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the country.

On Thursday, at least 600 holiday worshipers packed the Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary in the Karada neighborhood, where a flashing red-and-gold Christmas tree adorned the altar.

Women came with their hair uncovered and were dressed in their holiday finest — festive red sweaters and skirts, bejeweled jeans and knee-high lace-up boots.

Father Boutros Haddad, the church’s priest, said he hadn’t seen so many worshipers in years.

“It’s been a long time since we felt happy like now,” Haddad said. “We are happy for peace. We are not happy only for Christians, we feel happy for the Kurds, Arabs, Chaldeans. We feel happy for everybody in Iraq because we are brothers. Let us pray for peace.”

For the first time in memory, the Iraqi government declared Christmas a national holiday. And last week, a community event was held at a park to celebrate the spirit of Christmas. Large posters depicting a portrait of Jesus and a Christmas tree could be spotted around town.

HT: Hugh Hewitt

“The Tale of Despereaux”

We just got back from the movies, where I was privileged to be in attendance at our two-year-old grandson’s first full-length motion picture. He was completely absorbed for the whole 90 minutes, like everyone else reaching for popcorn and stuffing it in his mouth while his eyes were glued to the big screen.

We watched “The Tale of Despereaux,” and I recommend it. It’s a computer-animated literary fairy tale about a mouse who refuses to cower and a rat who developed a taste for fine food and so refuses to eat garbage. (Think of the symbolism!) It’s on the serious side, rather than comic, with a rather complicated plot. But it’s good, celebrating the chivalric virtues of “honor, courage, and justice.” And what it takes to be a “gentleman.” How sad it is that those very words seem anachronistic today. The movie also celebrates the Christian virtue of forgiveness. Sammy and I give it two thumbs up.

Cool Christmas presents

So what did you get for Christmas? In addition to many thoughtful and useful gifts I received, I got one of the coolest presents since that Daisy BB gun I got as a kid on a Christmas eerily reminiscent of “The Christmas Story.” My wife gave me a MACHETE! Coming with a sheath so that I could wear it all day, the machete satisfies my interest in swords. And I hacked through the jungle-like tangled underbrush of our dead garden in about five minutes!

Did any of you get any unusual or cool or unique-to-your-quirks Christmas presents?

Happy Boxing Day

Other English-speaking lands celebrate the day after Christmas as Boxing Day. It’s a day to give gifts to the people who serve you. First it was servants, when even the middle class had servants, but then it extended to others, including pastors. Sounds like another holiday about vocation! A day to be thankful for the vocation of others who love and serve you as their neighbor. Let’s bring Boxing Day to America! Go here for a nice site dedicated to the Christian observance of Boxing Day.

UPDATE: Bruce Gee reminds us that it is also St. Stephen’s Day. Which means that today is the day we should sing “Good King Winceslas,” who went out not on Christmas but on “the Feast of Stephen,” and there, where the snow was deep and crisp and even, he met a poor man and brought him inside, thereby celebrating Boxing Day!

Peace on Earth in India after all

We had some posts about the persecution of Christians in Orissa, the state in India, and the prospect that an all-day shutdown on Christmas, as pushed by Hindu extremists, would mean more atrocities against Christians, such as that 11-year-old girl we wrote about who forgave those who burned her face. But the government called off the shutdown and sent police in force to keep order. Once again, civil government, under Romans 13, does what it’s supposed to do.