Monday, December 05, 2005

Bought and Paid For

Corrupt Intentions - What Cunningham's misdeeds illustrate about conservative Washington. By Michael Kinsley

You've got to love Michael Kinsley. He takes a depressing subject (Congressional corruption) and makes it funny without losing the point.

Kinsley notes what I've often thought when I hear about the paltry amounts for which our representatives seem willing to sell out their principles:
Members of Congress are among the world's greatest bargains: What are a couple of commodes compared with $163 million of Pentagon contracts?
What indeed? Why do people making the maximum contribution of $2,000 to a campaign buy influence worth so many times that amount? Why will members of Congress sell out their nation so cheaply?

I think it's a cultural phenomenon. Members of Congress are people, too. They circulate in crowds with money, often more money than they themselves possess. As wealthier folks leave the private sector loaded with cash to "represent" their fellow citizens (often by reducing the taxes of their corporate pals), those in Congress who don't come from such backgrounds are forced to scramble to keep up or look like paupers on the House and Senate floor. "Why should I have so little while they have so much?" these members of Congress must wonder. They calculate all the long hours spent traveling, reading arane language, being pilloried by the opposition, and wonder why their salaries aren't higher.

And then they realize it--they have access to the biggest pool of money in the country, the federal budget! Who could resist? It's so big no one can read it all, so loaded with additions from colleagues that no one will notice one more. And it's the one thing they can sell without giving up their gig in Congress and the feeling of "giving back" that comes with it. (The only faster way to make a buck is to get a book deal, but unless you've got name recognition like Obama or Clinton, that's hardly a viable route, plus you face all manner of pesky questions of influence--just ask Newt Gingrich.)

I'm not pardoning what Duke Cunningham and others--on both sides of the aisle--have done. (I leave that to President Bush, whose last weeks in office will no doubt be very busy ones.) I'm just asking, should we really be surprised?

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