It is springtime in Washington, DC, and a biennial election is drawing near. As sure as the cherry blossoms bloom and blow away, the cry of corruption and scandal is heard. This year, after almost a decade of single party control of the Congress, the cry is louder than usual, though it is still a very predictable chorus.
Congressional scandals and cries of corruption are as old as Congress. In fact I submit the proposition that there has never been a single day in the history of the Congress that there has not been some scandal, corruption probe, or embarrassing Congressional peccadillo being bandied about town. The recipe for scandal and corruption is very simple and all the ingredients are always in the Congressional pantry. Take 535 people, predominantly men, give them some power and prestige, put them in Washington, DC, often away from stabilizing family influences, give them some money and presto! You have everything you need for scandal and corruption, or at least salacious misbehavior.
The current chapter in the Congressional scandal and corruption encyclopedia is actually fairly boring and involves a relatively an ancient concept of corruption, now nicely labeled “influence peddling.” While I discussed elements of this issue in a previous article about earmark and lobbying reform, influence peddling is one of those crimes that is both virtuous and vice, depending on the degree to which it is practiced.
A constituent calling upon a member of Congress on a specific issue in the district or state asking for relief from the Government is common. In fact it is a basic element of the system. Threats to not vote for him/her in the next election are also standard and part of the process. Campaign contributions to grease the wheels of the process are again not new but only recently being examined in more detail. The current scandal involves lobbyists spreading money around Washington, DC in attempt to gain favorable government action and legislation. It is the oldest trick in the book. Two separate cases are being played out; one is complex and being investigated by prosecutors. The other was so patently obvious, you kind of wonder what the Congressman was thinking.
Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham received all kinds of gifts from a defense contractor (Rep. Cunningham sat on the House Defense Appropriations Committee). The gifts were so grand that the Congressman even bought a Rolls-Royce! Now go back to my first statement, 535 mostly men in a town, far from home. You would think that some buddies of Rep. Cunningham would have said: “Duke, what are you doing?” Or at least, “What’s with the Rolls-Royce?”
Becoming wealthy as the result of Congressional service is not new and is perceived by some to be the norm. Most achieve wealth, if they are not wealthy before they arrive in town, by moving into lucrative positions after they leave office. Something everyone tries to do: improve the resume and get a better job. But there are a few who can’t wait or are just not smart enough to play the game normally. Out of 535 even randomly selected people, let alone elected, there are always such people in the mix.
Outright thievery, should be rare one would think in such an open place with so many cameras, watchdogs and opposition partisans. The practice of blatant thievery would be difficult to maintain, despite Ex-Rep. Cunningham’s best attempt to prove otherwise. The softer corruptive element of bribery is less likely noticed, mainly because it is so prevalent in many legal forms.
I can quickly name quite a few patently obvious recent examples of blatant, numbskull corruption. Ways and Means Chairman Rostenkowski, Abscam (one Senator, five Congressmen), and Rep. James Traficant are some relatively recent ones. If I think a bit harder, I can name more: House Post Office scandal, the Keating Five, House Speaker Wright’s book deal. There are current ones I have not mentioned yet – Rep. William Jefferson, Rep. Allen Mollohan, and Rep. Bob Ney. You get the picture. Not much effort is needed, nor do you have to go back to the 19th century to make a long list.
Another form of Congressional misconduct involves indiscretions, both legal and illegal, usually sexual in nature. If a couple of the 535 men in Washington are likely to be corrupted, an even larger percentage is likely to behave outside the norms of the day. Considering that norms of behavior are gradually sinking anyway, Congressional misbehavior seems to mirror society in this regard. Some are very personal, like the very recent events of Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s prescription drug abuse and driving troubles, others are personality quirks like Rep. Cynthia McKinney’s altercation with a Capitol policeman. Many are sexual, like Rep. Barney Frank’s roommate who ran a prostitution ring being run from his home or Senator Bob Packwood’s groping of staffers. Some are quite glorious, in my opinion, like Rep. Wilbur Mill’s frolicking in the Washington Tidal Basin with stripper Fannie Foxe.
You may have noted that I omitted the customary party and state designations to all the names I have noted. This was on purpose because scandal and misconduct is always judged in partisan terms. My opponent’s scandal is much worse than my fellow partisan’s scandal. The Republicans in power for the past eight years are the current and primary examples, but you only have to go back to the previous Democratic controlled Congress and you can find plenty to choose from. If there are more Democrats than Republicans, expect more Democratic scandals and vice versa. Since the Republicans control both the Executive and Legislative branches presently, and since absolute power corrupts absolutely, it is just simple mathematics. Power of course can entice corruption, so if you hold a very powerful position, such as the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee, all the enticing elements are in place.
The Midwestern prude in me wants to condemn all Congressional misbehavior as a violation of the public trust given to people elected to Congress. The Washington, D.C. realist in me understands that misbehavior is inevitable. Combine power, money, sycophantic advisors, inflated egos, living thousands of miles from home, and very common human shortcomings, and you get scandal, corruption and misbehavior.
Each chamber of Congress has ethics committees and like all internal supervisory organs be they of lawyers, doctors or clergy, they are generally ineffective except for the most egregious cases, where they have no choice but to take action (Sen. Joseph McCarthy). One would think that party organizations would control and police members better since scandal taints political parties, too. But the nature of U.S. political parties does not lend them to being effective behavior managers or even watchdogs.
It is interesting to watch how the institution of Congress reacts and addresses these events. There is no doubt that the publicity of them brings the institution into poor public regard (read any poll on opinions of Congress, since modern polling began). The institution, however, seems to muddle through. Some changes are made as glaring opportunities for misbehavior are closed – like the House Post Office or Campaign contribution reform. Sometimes simple misbehavior is forgotten, or laughed off. Sometimes members are defeated for re-election and occasionally some go to prison. But that is the case with any institution, whether a legislature, civic club, business, labor union or even a church. The mission of the institution is too important to have such behavior some members destroy it – at this time. But Congress should beware: given the right circumstances, perhaps an economic downturn, the natural allure of power and money, plus a demagogic political culture, the whole system could crash. Don’t fear however; a few of us are still here in Washington to keep an eye out on things for you, unless we too succumb to the allure of the place.