Where It's Always Christmas

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Harry Reid probably didn't give it much thought. When Christmas rolled around and it was time to contribute to the holiday fund for employees at the Ritz-Carlton condominium where he lives while in Washington, the Senate minority leader did what comes naturally to politicians these days: He dipped into his campaign account.

As recent ethical transgressions go, the Nevada Democrat's actions aren't the biggest deal around. Election rules bar candidates from using campaign funds for personal expenses, but Reid contends that the tips were to thank the staff for the hassle of dealing with a resident dignitary. That's arguable, and after the Associated Press reported on Reid's donor-funded generosity, he repaid the three years of campaign-funded tips, $3,300.

Reid's actions are more important, though, as an illustration of the entrenched, bipartisan congressional mind-set of entitlement. Republicans and Democrats may not agree on much, but their joint operating ethos too often boils down to an attitude of: "It's my due. Why shouldn't I?"

Lawmakers have steadfastly resisted clamping down on privately funded travel. They have refused to do away with free use of corporate jets. They eagerly take freebies such as skybox tickets and expensive meals under the prevailing "don't ask, don't pay" congressional culture in which someone else -- a company, a campaign committee -- is always picking up the tab.

Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but it also corrupts trivially. What's striking about Congress (aside from flagrantly corrupt members such as former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham) is the nickel-and-dime nature of the benefits they feel entitled to take, from Reid's acceptance of free boxing tickets from the Nevada Athletic Commission to California Republican Rep. John Doolittle's use of campaign funds to pay the babysitter.

Certainly this attitude is not solely a congressional phenomenon. In a report studded with delicious morsels, the Justice Department's inspector general last week chronicled the exploits of Carl Truscott, former head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- and the resources Truscott abused were taxpayer dollars, not private funds. While his agency was having to cut back on bulletproof vests for agents, Truscott was arranging for deluxe features in the director's suite of the agency's new building, including a flat-panel television in his private bathroom and a parquet floor modeled on those in the vice president's ceremonial office. Unlike his predecessors, he traveled with an extensive security entourage, and because the director "did not like to wait," security personnel met him at the airport to bypass lines. He violated government ethics rules by using "significant ATF resources" -- about 20 agency employees ended up being drafted to help -- on his nephew's high school project to produce a video about the ATF.

There's something about Congress, though, that may especially invite such grandiosity. As Truscott's escapades show, executive branch officials may be catered to by subservient staff, but there are at least civil service protections for those who dare to complain and inspectors general to expose the most egregious misbehavior. But where are the checks on Congress? In theory, the fear of being dinged by a campaign opponent might restrain lawmakers; in reality, given gerrymandered districts, that might not be much of a deterrent. Instead, lawmakers are surrounded by staff members, lobbyists and others whose only incentives are to satisfy their whims, not resist them.

Cunningham offers a case in point. A summary of his dealings with staffers at the House intelligence committee showed how their compliance enabled him to direct at least $70 million in contracts to corrupt defense contractors. Bullied and cowed by Cunningham, committee staff ignored "red flags" and dutifully satisfied his requests, the report found. After the report was released, I asked the committee spokesman whether any disciplinary action would be taken. He was thunderstruck. What, he asked, was the staff to do in the face of a lawmaker's demands? "Have you ever worked in Congress?" he asked. (No.)

Last week an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll reported the lowest public approval rating for Congress since 1992. What I wondered about was this: Who are the 16 percent who approve?


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