From the time they arrive in Washington, newly elected members of Congress are told they are something special, an elite class.
“You have reached a special place in life and in American history,” Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi told a recent class of freshmen Senators and Congressman. “Treat it with respect.”
But too many members of both the House and Senate treat their “special place in life and in American history” as a license to steal, living large at taxpayer expense, ignoring laws that apply to ordinary Americans and betraying the trust of the public that put them there.
Does the heady atmosphere of Congress turn honest men and women into a criminal class? Or is elected office simply a magnet for those who lie, cheat and steal for a living?
It could be a little bit of both, say political scientists and Constitutional scholars.
Congress has always had its share of rogues and scoundrels:
- Adam Clayton Powell, the fast-talking Harlem Congressman who was re-elected even after Congress expelled him in 1967. Powell had survived charges of income-tax evasion (with a hung jury) even before his first election to Congress.
- Wes Cooley, the Oregon Congressman who lied about serving in the Korean War, quit Congress under a cloud in 1996, and was later convicted of falsifying VA loan applications.
- California Congressman Walter Tucker, who quit Congress in 1996 just before his conviction for accepting $30,000 in bribes and sentenced to 27 months in the federal pen.
Congressmen have gone to jail for child molestation, bribery, fraud, misuse of public funds and various crimes and misdemeanors. Some have resigned in disgrace: Wayne Hayes because he put his mistress on his payroll as a secretary (she couldn’t type) or Wilbur Mills because he messed around with a stripper.
Yet Gary Studds of Massachusetts seduced a young male House page, defied the House when it censured him and was re-elected several times. But Dan Crane of Illinois had sex with a female page, cried and begged forgiveness on the floor of the House and lost his next election.
Rep. Barney Frank, also of Massachusetts, is the most openly gay member of Congress and shared his Washington townhouse with a male prostitute who ran a homosexual whorehouse out of the residence. But that didn’t stop him from winning re-election easily or serving as the primary Democratic defender of Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
“Congressional corruption has no party, no ideology and no gender,” says Constitutional Scholar Alan Baker. “It’s bipartisan and soaked in history and tradition. It also often defies logic.”
Sociologist Sandra Reeves believes public perception of widespread corruption among elected officials is one of the reasons for the widespread ambivalence over Bill Clinton’s sex and money scandals.
“If the public felt Congress was an honest institution, there might have been more outrage over the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal,” Reeves says. “But many people felt that the people investigating the President were just as dirty.”
Congress is nearly always slow to act against its own. It took the Senate three years to investigate and finally get rid of serial sexual assaulter Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon. Many of Packwood’s Republican colleagues defended him right up until the end.
“The leadership of both Houses of Congress needs a serious wake up call,” says Baker. “You can’t preach morality and family values while you wink and look the other way when one your own breaks the law.”
Andrea Wamstead knows far too well how Congress works. She worked on the Hill for nearly 20 years before leaving to get married earlier this year.
“It’s a game to a lot of members,” she says. “Under the House rules, a Congressman doesn’t have an expense account, per se. But he can be reimbursed for constituent expenses, so he simply tabs his regular meals as ‘meals with constituents’ and gets his office budget to pay for them. The game is all about how to get around the rules.”
House rules also prohibit the paying of bonuses to employees, but Members get around this by raising staff member’s salaries by 100 percent or more for one or two months.
In 1983, California Congressman Bob Dornan went to Grenada with a delegation to review the American military intervention of the Caribbean island. He tried to leave the island with a stolen Russian AK-47 in his suitcase, but the weapon was discovered by U.S. Military Personnel and confiscated.
“He threw a royal hissy fit,” says retired Army Sgt. Andy Mackie, who was on Grenada at the time. “He kept ranting and raving about how he was a Congressman and if he wanted an AK-47 we had no right to take it from him.” The Army kept the weapon and destroyed it.
In 1982, former New York Congressman Norman Lent tried to have 50 counterfeit Rolex watches sent to him from Taiwan. When customs officers in Baltimore seized the shipment, Lent called the Director of the Customs Service on the carpet and demanded to know why his watches were taken. The director stood his ground and the watches were destroyed.
“We’re talking about a culture of ‘I’m better than everyone else’ and ‘I don’t have to answer to anyone,'” says Baker. “It is pervasive and it has been part of the Congressional culture for a long time. You may hear a lot of talk about accountability and reform, but it simply is not happening.”
Even when a new member of Congress arrives in Washington, full of idealism about doing a good job, he or she is soon sucked into the system.
“When members get together in the Republican and Democratic cloakrooms, they don’t talk about legislation or issues,” says former GOP House staff member Jonathan Luckstill. “They brag about how much money they have raised for their campaign or how they conned a trade association into an speech invitation to a convention in Hawaii and turned it into a weeklong vacation. I’ve had more than one boss come back to me and want to know why I wasn’t getting him a speech invitation to Hawaii.”
Luckstill says the indoctrination also teaches new members that a crime is only a crime when the other party commits it.
“If a Democrat is caught breaking the law, that’s justice,” he says. “But when a Republican is charged, it’s politics.”
Many on Capitol Hill feel the system must be changed, but few agree on how it should be done.
As Winston Churchill once said: “Democracy is the worst form of government imaginable – except for all other forms.”
© 1999 Capitol Hill Blue
(Capitol Hill Blue editor Jack Sharp, researcher Marilyn Crosslyn and private investigator James Hargill contributed to this report.)