In recent weeks, a series of reports emerged that once again have engulfed congressional representatives in clouds of scandal and corruption. This time around. Majority Leader Tom Delay is bearing the brunt of the allegations. But there’s plenty of malfeasance to go around.
What does Delay and his cohorts stand accused of? They stand accused of using special interest funds for junkets and personal travel. Ethically, it’s clear that Delay and his cohorts have crossed some serious boundaries. But legally, the questions are up in the air.
In a recent editorial, the Los Angeles Tunes noted that: “The House rules prohibit travel funded by lobbyists. That would be unconscionable. But they permit travel funded by corporations, trade associations and nonprofits, with lobbyists allowed to accompany lawmakers for the trip.” The absurdity continues: “The rules prohibit representatives from accepting gifts exceeding $50. That would be wrong. But they permit-unlimited spending on representatives—and their family and staff—if they are on a corporate-funded “educational” trip.”
One would think that many of the trips in question would be to meet with intellectual leaders, including heads of state and industry and academic experts. But many of the trips in question were not to the industrial or intellectual capitals of our country, but to such locales, as Hawaii, Arizona, and Florida. And adding insult to injury, the spouses of many Representatives often joined in as well, without forking over a dime.
Republicans are not the only ones to be singled out as crossing the ethical line. According to The Daily Chronicle, “Chicago Democrat Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. … has taken,41 trips since 2000. In 2001, he traveled with his wife to the United Arab Emirates; the trip cost $19,500 and was sponsored by the Islamic Institute.”
Clearly, the law in this case is set up to favor a somewhat loose definition of discretion. Perhaps Jackson’s personal crusade to the UAE was a worthy cause. But imagine if this type of situation occurred in the private sector. The wrath of Eliot Spitizer, the SEC, and trial lawyers would descend about the presumed guilty parties and torment them into forking over millions to state pension funds and other “harmed” parties. And for smaller family owned organizations, certainly the IRS would have no qualms about reclassifying expenses as personal or entertainment, even when there was a business motive beyond such a trip or visit.
We believe that the private and public sectors do not share the same standards of accountability. But our elected officials should be held to an even higher standard of accountability―if not by law, then by personal ethics.
Why? Members of Congress are elected to represent their district’s views and needs. They are, after all, paid by you and me. Whereas even a government employee is not permitted to accept bribes or gifts of any kind, elected officials, should at least be held to an equivalent standard. Businesses are not free to accept or offer bribes (Boeing could attest to that) of any kind, yet it is ironic that our elected officials are able to accept “educational junkets”. (That is the equivalent of a business owner throwing an employee or personal party―ala Tyco―and calling it a marketing expense).
While one could argue that Representatives like Tom DeLay and Jesse Jackson, Jr. are within the law when they jet off to Hawaii or the UAE for a few free days on the beach, this type of behavior flies in the face of duty, accountability, and integrity. Do we really want elected officials following a lesser standard than we, private citizens/employees, must be held to?