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By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

For a while there, I was worried about our elected representatives, but after reading Ken Silverstein's "Beltway Bacchanal" in the March issue of Harper's, I'm happy to report that they are in no danger of starvation.

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Last year, when Congress passed an ethics bill that barred lobbyists from buying meals for senators and representatives, I feared for our leaders' health. How would they be able to feed themselves on a salary of only $169,300 if they were not permitted to walk around Capitol Hill wearing signs reading, "Will Legislate For Food"? In my nightmares, I saw Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Jack Murtha wasting away on a diet of ramen noodles, their gray pinstripe suits billowing around their gaunt bodies.

Fortunately for the fate of the republic, that ethics bill, like so many previous ethics bills, left a loophole big enough to drive an armored car through. Sure, a lobbyist can no longer buy your congressman a $41 porterhouse steak at the Capital Grille, but the lobbyist can still donate $2,300 to the congressman's reelection campaign and then they can both chow down, safe in the knowledge that the campaign can pick up the tab.

So have no fear, my fellow Americans: Your congressman's sacred right to eat for free shall not perish from the earth.

Perhaps you thought that a congressman's campaign funds were supposed to be spent on, you know, the congressman's campaign. Oh, you poor naive fool! This is the era of the permanent campaign, so a pol running for reelection in, say, Montana in 2008 can use campaign money to treat himself and his cronies to $43 prime rib dinners at Morton's in Washington in 2007 with no fear of retribution by the Federal Election Commission.

"As the 'campaign' has lost all temporal and spatial boundaries, and the FEC has largely turned a blind eye," Silverstein writes, "misuse of donor money has become positively shameless."

How shameless? "Between 2005 and late 2007," Silverstein writes, "at just ten of Washington's priciest restaurants, House members collectively spent $5.4 million of their campaign money."

Silverstein's story is filled with wonderfully lurid statistics on how much campaign money pols spend filling their pie holes. Here's one stat about the face-stuffing at just one venue, the National Democratic Club on Capitol Hill: "During the first nine months of 2007, congressional Democrats and party committees used political contributions to pay for $426,431 worth of food and drink at the club."

The beauty of this system is that when the campaign ends, the gravy train keeps chugging along: "At least eight House members spent more than $10,000 in campaign funds on food, travel, and fund-raising in the eight weeks between Election Day 2006 and New Year's Eve -- not exactly a peak campaign period," Silverstein writes. "These included Democrat John Murtha and Republican Don Young, whose respective margins of victory were 22 and 17 percent. Three of the other big spenders, interestingly enough, were Republicans who lost their seats in the 2006 midterm vote; in their dwindling days of public service, they apparently decided to treat themselves well on the way out."

It's an outrage, of course, but if you're foolish enough to give these people money, you've got to expect that they'll waste it. That's what they do. And look at the bright side: Every dollar a pol spends pigging out is a dollar he can't spend buying an obnoxious campaign ad.

Settling for Mr. So-So

Attention, single women:

Let's say you're in your 30s and you've got a boyfriend and he's a nice enough guy but he's going bald and getting fat and he'd rather play air hockey than sit around sharing his feelings and, besides, he makes annoying noises when he chews and he doesn't like your cat and your college roommate thinks he's not good enough for you. What should you do?

"Marry him," says Lori Gottlieb in an essay in this month's Atlantic Monthly that's called, straightforwardly enough, "Marry Him: The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough."

Gottlieb did not settle for Mr. Good Enough. She looked for Mr. Perfect and failed to find him and ended up having a baby sired by a sperm donor. Now she's offering some hard-won advice: "Settle! That's right. Don't worry about passion or intense connection. Don't nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling 'Bravo!' in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go."

Infrastructure? What about romance? What about finding your soul mate, your one true love?

"When we're holding out for deep romantic love, we have the fantasy that this level of passionate intensity will make us happier," Gottlieb writes. "But marrying Mr. Good Enough might be an equally viable option, especially if you're looking for a stable, reliable life companion. . . . Marriage ultimately isn't about cosmic connection -- it's about how having a teammate, even if he's not the love of your life, is better than not having one at all."

Of course, Gottlieb's advice contradicts the romantic message of a million love songs and Valentine's cards and chick flicks. But given the perennial shortage of perfect men, she's probably got a point.

For some reason, though, Gottlieb feels that men don't have to settle. "Settling is mostly a women's game," she writes. "Men settle far less often and, when they do, they don't seem the least bit bothered by the fact that they're settling."

That's baloney, of course. For every woman holding out for a perfect man, there's a man holding out for a perfect woman. Maybe someday they'll settle for each other.

Jack's Broad Spectrum

This just in: AARP magazine has good news for aging women whose idea of the perfect man is Jack Nicholson.

"Would you date a woman of AARP age?" the magazine asked Nicholson.

"Well, yes," Nicholson answered. "I'd do everything to a woman of AARP age, and have. In fact, every year I like to cover a very broad spectrum."

There you have it, women of the AARP: a reason to go on living.


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