Sunday, August 1, 2010
No surprises here
There's been a fair amount of discussion on C-SPAN this morning about corruption in Congress and what a terrible blow it is to Nancy Pelosi that both Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters are facing ethics problems. Why?
This is classic media hype, this whole golly gee, what a shocker, someone in Congress has gotten nailed for sleazy behavior and we're all so surprised that this is happening, a sort of breathless naivete like it's never, ever happened before.
Get real, people. It happens every term -- some Congress critter who's managed to get re-elected multiple times and has gone for 10, 20, or 30 years with no meaningful opposition back in his or her home district starts confusing holding a political office with being given a lifetime entitlement. They start thinking the rules no longer apply to them. They become addicted to the junkets provided by industry lobbyists, they start giving jobs to their relatives, they cut various corners because they figure they can use their positions to intimidate anyone who dares to remind them there are rules. They abuse their positions by sexually harassing staffers and Congressional pages, they go out and party hard, abusing drugs and/or alcohol because they figure they can hush up any tickets or arrests, and so on. The longer they're in office, the more brazen the behavior, and eventually they get caught. And it's nonpartisan -- both parties have experienced the embarrassment of a senator or representative getting caught, sometimes quite literally, with his pants down (does anyone remember Larry Craig?).
Similarly, every administration ends up with at least a handful of appointees getting nailed for corruption or other criminal activities. I think the Reagan administration currently holds the record for number of criminal indictments of appointees, beating out Warren G. Harding by a cabinet officer or two, but no administration is totally immune.
So why the feigned surprise? Maybe because the media is like the rest of the American populace and has a hard time remembering anything that happened more than a week ago, but more likely because sensationalism sells. The headline equivalent of "Holy crap! I can't believe this is happening!!" is going to draw a lot more eyeballs than "Long-held suspicions confirmed."
When I look at cases like Rangel and Waters, I see the inevitable result of gerrymandering, of districts being drawn in a way that makes them solidly safe for one party or the other. It's a lot easier to grow complacent and corrupt if you think there's never going to be any serious opposition to your candidacy. When I look at the map for the Atlanta area, for example, and see the convoluted lines for District 13, I know it was created to ensure a district that would be reliably one party or the other -- and, as it turns out, it captures the areas around the edges of metropolitan Atlanta that lean Democratic. (It's currently represented by David Scott. The two districts in the middle, 4 and 5, are solidly Democratic.) The sad reality is that in any given year, over 90% of incumbents will be returned to office. We may talk about throwing the bums out, but the advantages of incumbency mean we're rarely able to follow through. Most changes in Congress this year, at least on the Democratic side of the aisle, despite the posturing the Tea Party and others, are more likely to result from Congress critters deciding on their own to retire (e.g., Stupak in Michigan) than from anything happening in voting booths.