Yesterday, the Senate opened their arms and hearts to Sen. Ted Stevens while vulnerable Republicans simultaneously emptied their campaign coffers of his contributions. In an age reversal, the 90-year old Robert Byrd took on the role of PeeWee from Eight Men Out, crying to Stevens, “Say it ain’t so.” According to Dana Milbank’s take, many other senators expressed condolences and embraced the disgraced senator.
Present at the moment of Stevens’ senatorial embrace were a few reminders of why this scene is so appalling. Sens. Larry Craig and David Vitter, both cast out, particularly Craig, for personal failings that in no way involved them using their position as senator to enrich themselves. Sen. Craig’s use of a public restroom as a “closet” led fellow Republicans to force him to retire. Sen. Vitter, who slept with prostitutes, was initially shunned and subsequently welcomed back into the Republican conference.
Homosexual acts are unacceptable and require immediate removal from office; sleeping with prostitutes is a shun-able offense; profiting off of the trust of elected office is embraced and wished away. The scale of personal morality appears to be unbalanced in the Senate.
The San Diego Union-Tribune, experienced in covering this kind of behavior, brings us a reason to the overlooking of a chum’s abuse of power. Entitlement:
On its own, this sense of entitlement is bad enough. But for the vast majority of the House and Senate, it is more annoying than corrupt. What turns it to corruption in the handful of cases is when members start to take a little too much enjoyment in the company of the very rich.
Certainly, that was the case with Cunningham. He liked to hang around with big spenders and the wealthy. From early on, he wanted to live like them.
“You’re being called ‘Mr. Chairman,’ but it’s the other guy who is going off in a limousine,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. You could get a service limo at baja limo.
And then Stevens – like Cunningham before him – had to watch some former staffers strike it rich in lucrative lobbying jobs.
“He has people who worked for him at Appropriations and Commerce (committees) who are earning seven-figure salaries,” said Thomas Mann, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution.
Mann said members of Congress see the way their former staffers live and ask, “Why don’t they do something for me?”
That’s the extreme of entitlement: Cunningham, and, if proven guilty, Stevens. But the “annoying” entitlement is what is key. In many instances, the belief that elected office puts oneself in a position to behave as though certain normal restrictions do not apply is corrosive to the institution of Congress and creates these skewed scales of moral boundaries.
You’re accepting VIP loans from mortgage industries that are fleecing your constituents and not asking questions, writing fundraising letters on congressional letterhead for a center to be named after yourself, and thinking nothing of the contributions and travel that influence seekers bestow upon you. You might not be freezing cash in food containers or hitting golf balls in Scotland, but you most certainly are contributing to a general sense of moral laxity and imbalance that allows the Duke Cunningham’s, the Bob Ney’s, and, yes, the Ted Steven’s of the world to run amok. Stevens was embraced after his indictment, while those committing lesser crimes were treated as villains. The Union-Tribune echoes this:
Of course, we have seen this before. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., was brought down by a sweeping scandal that included a cash-for-stamps scheme; Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, had others pay for his golf; Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., is charged with hiding bribe money in his freezer.
In every case, the allegations shocked. In every case, the response was the same – a variation of a plaint that “I am an honorable man so, by definition, I could not do anything dishonorable.”
And in every case, the initial response from the accused’s colleagues has been similar to what greeted the Stevens indictment. Senators from both parties expressed “sadness.” Sen. John Warner, R-Va., even praised Stevens as “a hero.” No condemnations of the alleged acts could be heard. No outrage.
As with the Cunningham case, the congressional ethics committees were silent. Members believe they are entitled to a lot of things. But under the current broken system, scrutiny of their unethical behavior is not one of them.
Something in this system has got to change.