Virtue on the Hill: Are We Their Enablers?

Walter Shapiro | Posted on 04/19/10

Over the years, Congress has also become less of a microcosm of the larger society. The professionalization of politics at all levels means that fewer small-town lawyers and insurance agents are getting elected to Congress in favor of wealthy self-funders and candidates recruited by the national political parties.

You can almost write your own Borscht Belt routine: Congress is so unpopular that senators are running for reelection under assumed names...that it is now a conflict of interest for congressmen to discuss prison reform...that legislators patronize prostitutes in order to hang out with a higher class of citizens...that Bernie Madoff refuses to share a cell with a defrocked politician.

What is beyond dispute is that the current Congress wins Bronx-cheer poll numbers from the voters that eclipse even the historic low points set by Harry Truman during the stalemated Korean War and Richard Nixon on the eve of his involuntary exile to San Clemente. In the last ten major national polls, dating back to early February, Congress averaged a...wait for it...17 percent approval rating. The 535 elected officials who long to be loved by the voters have somehow become the Wrong Way Corrigans of political popularity.

The stench of scandal is about the only thing in Washington that remains bipartisan. Charlie Rangel finally stepped aside last month as the chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee after he was admonished by the Ethics Committee for accepting a corporate-sponsored junket to the Caribbean. But the Ethics Committee has yet to rule on other Rangel wrangles, including (my favorite) his failure to pay taxes on $75,000 in rental income from a beach house in the Dominican Republic because...wait for it...he cannot read Spanish. Meanwhile, upstate New York Democratic congressman Eric Massa abruptly resigned last month to avoid an Ethics Committee probe into gay sexual harassment charges, though as the New York Times put it in a gloriously un-Timesian headline: "Ex-Congressman Describes Tickle Fights with Aides."

Just four years ago, the Republicans lost control of Congress, in large part because they were the engine behind a massive job-creation program for Washington white-collar criminal defense lawyers. Even if the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal does not trigger memories, surely the years have not erased the seamy notoriety of Florida congressman Mark Foley's penchant for sending steamy text messages to underage male Capitol Hill pages. But while the Republicans have handed the deanship of Capitol Hill's School for Scandal to the Democrats, Nevada GOP senator John Ensign has creatively upheld the old Watergate dictum: it's not the crime, it's the cover-up. According to Nevada newspapers, the Justice Department is said to be nearing an indictment in a case that grew out of Ensign's affair (yes, the senator is married) with the wife of his former campaign manager. The legal problem is not the sex (if it were the Senate would have difficulty with quorum calls) but the way that Ensign arranged for his wealthy parents to send a $96,000 farewell check to his former mistress while simultaneously bending ethics rules to gin up lobbying jobs for her husband.

Scandal stories like these are embarrassing for Ensign and Rangel, but do they also make the voters (or to be blunt, you and me) complicit in the apparent collapse of political mores? Since Congress, especially the House, was designed to be the political embodiment of the nation, does the purported breakdown of congressional ethics mirror a moral failing in the larger society? And is Capitol Hill really worse than ever?

It is nearly impossible to quantify congressional misconduct across decades (though undoubtedly political scientists have earned PhDs with elaborate statistical models and regression analyses) because ethical monitoring has grown far more rigorous in the post-Watergate era. The Senate, for example, boasts a 512-page ethics manual filled with such obsessively detailed provisions as: "With respect to meals, it should be noted that a meal is a single item whose value consists of all of the items consumed during the meal (i.e., appetizers, main course, drinks, wine, and dessert)." The result: even though congressional ethics enforcement remains toothless, congressional ethics investigations have become a growth industry.

We also live in a media age (warning: stunning revelation ahead) in which far greater energy is devoted to coverage of sex scandals than substance. Whether it is Idaho Republican senator Larry Craig's misadventure in an airport restroom or Louisiana senator David Vitter's patronage of prostitutes, these stories bounce from newspaper headlines to cable TV pundit roundtables to late-night comedy routines to YouTube clips, creating the impression that sexual misbehavior in Congress is wilder than it was at Woodstock. Also, while there is no way of knowing for certain, it is quite possible that abuse of congressional pages might have been successfully covered up in an earlier see-no-evil era.

Over the years, Congress has also become less of a microcosm of the larger society. The professionalization of politics at all levels means that fewer small-town lawyers and insurance agents are getting elected to Congress in favor of wealthy self-funders and candidates recruited by the national political parties. According to an analysis of the notoriously imprecise congressional financial disclosure reports by the Center for Responsive Politics, there were 237 millionaires in Congress in 2008. Even for those legislators who are (horrors!) forced to live on their $174,000 annual salaries, the political necessity for nonstop campaign fund-raising means that their social universe is defined by wealth and privilege.

Yet contrary to media stereotypes, Congress may be more ethical than ever when it comes to a bedrock principle of honest government: the lack of overt bribery. Even those cynical about the implicit quid pro quos that come with campaign contributions will admit that there is a major difference between legal gifts to a candidate's reelection fund and Spiro Agnew-style cash in white envelopes. Sure, in the early 1980s, a senator and six House members were convicted of bribery and related offenses because they yielded to the blandishments of FBI agents dressed as Arab sheiks in the Abscam scandal. But three decades later, this successful FBI sting operation remains an aberration rather than the general rule.

How different (and more corrupt) life was in the nineteenth century. Even a sainted figure like Senator Daniel Webster, immortalized in statues and short stories, routinely accepted large personal cash gifts from Massachusetts bankers and manufacturers in gratitude for his service and votes in the Senate. During the Gilded Age, as Congress took a larger role in regulating commerce and promoting business, cash-on-the-barrel-head corruption flourished in Congress. The Century magazine observed in 1892 that railroad and bank heads increasingly believed that "direct bribery is the only method for warding off injurious legislation, or securing desirable legislation."

It was this culture of corruption that prompted Mark Twain to tartly observe five years later, "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress." By those permissive bygone standards, Congress has come a long way in the last century. But by normal standards of ethical behavior, Congress still has a long way to go.


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