Honest graft refers to the money-making opportunities that might arise while holding public office. The activities are, strictly speaking, legal, although they might raise eyebrows or provoke criticism.
The term “honest graft” was coined by George Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany Hall boss and political operative. Plunkitt served in both houses of the New York State legislature during the late 19th century, but he also operated informally out of the New York City courthouse. Today, he is best known for his book on “practical politics,” which includes his definition of honest graft.
Plunkitt argued that it is absolutely legitimate for politicians to take advantage of any opportunities that they come across. Plunkitt looked down on “dishonest graft,” which included corruption and blackmail. But he upheld the right of politicians to line their pockets, as long as they did so legally. “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em,” he famously said.
Plunkitt did things like buy up public land after he got a tip that his political party was about to build a park in the area. When it came time to construct the park, he sold his land back, holding out for the highest possible price. Plunkitt didn’t see this as a waste of public funds; instead, he compared himself to a stock trader who studies futures. “It’s just like lookin’ ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market. It’s honest graft, and I’m lookin’ for it every day in the year,” he wrote.
In modern times, few politicians brag about looking for honest graft in the way that Plunkitt did. But journalists and advocacy groups often point out examples of what they see as barely-legal profiteering by politicians. In 2012, CBS News published a detailed look at how members of Congress use their inside knowledge to win big in the stock market. CBS pointed out that Members of Congress are free to use their knowledge about government contracts and upcoming legislation when they trade in the stock market, for example. Many compare this behavior to insider trading, but there is no law to prevent it.
Members of Congress also reportedly made a fortune by betting against the stock market just before the 2008 financial crisis hit. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke had, of course, tipped them off about the coming crash. And, like George Plunkitt, members of Congress also use their inside knowledge and power to make profitable real estate deals. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, for example, once used her influence to push through a 20 million dollar waterfront improvement project that drastically increased the value of property which she owned.
Over the years, Bill Clinton has faced questions about the big speaking fees he collects, and about the donations given to the Clinton Foundation. President Trump has also been accused of lining his pockets during his presidency. He has been questioned about his hotels and his golf courses, as well as his business connections to world leaders. Unlike George Plunkitt, none of today’s politicians wants to talk about honest graft, but the allegations persist.