Let's face it, Mark Twain was right when he said that America has no native criminal class except Congress. Now more than ever that is obvious.
But we shouldn't be surprised when we discover that a legislator, especially a high-ranking one, is a crook. The political process rewards those who are most adept at transferring money from the public at large to their friends and constituents. It weeds out honest men. And those it can't weed out, it corrupts. The careers of Jim Wright and Tony Coelho are proof of that.
Jim Wright served in Congress for 35 years, and until the very end, he enjoyed considerable support in his home district. Wright's success in winning reelection stemmed from his ability to funnel huge amounts of federal dollars to his home district. Wright used his power—first a member of the Public Works Committee, then as majority leader and speaker—to win hundreds of millions of dollars for his Fort Worth district. A 1979 study found that his district got the highest "return" per tax dollar of any in the country.
Wright also used his position on the Public Works Committee to help other members win pet projects for their districts. In 1977, Wright called in his debts and was elected majority leader. In that post, he acted as an unrelenting partisan—with no ideology other than the Democrats are always right and more government spending is better than less. In 1987, his colleagues again showed their respect by electing him speaker.
Tony Coelho was first elected to Congress in 1978. Like Wright, he was an unrelenting partisan who was most interested in gaining and wielding power. As head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Coelho acted as a shakedown artist. He went to businesspeople and reminded them that Democrats controlled the House. He pointed out that his party was in a position to reward its friends and punish its enemies. These businesspeople responded by making substantial contributions to Democratic candidates.
His colleagues appreciated his efforts tremendously. They made him majority whip. And he seemed certain to become the next majority leader and, eventually, speaker.
But within a space of three days in June the congressional careers of Tony Coelho and Jim Wright came to an end, undone by accusations of violating Congress's ethical standards. Yet even as they fell, Congress refused to question the favoritism, shakedowns, and contempt for the law that got them to the top.
The ethics committee didn't even investigate allegations that Wright had intervened with federal regulators to prevent the closing of several insolvent savings & loans in Texas. If the charges are true, Wright's actions helped the S&L crisis grow from a $12 billion problem to a $160 billion one. But his fellow House members decided that wasn't corruption. It was business as usual.
All members of Congress know that to get reelected they have to bring pork back home and do favors for their constituents, and they'll generally compromise whatever principles they have to do that. Rep. Thomas Downey (D–N.Y.), for example, is usually considered something of a dove, often opposing weapons systems the Pentagon wants. But when the Air Force tried to kill the T-46 trainer aircraft, Downey led the opposition, demanding that the Air Force buy an aircraft it didn't want. (See "Beware the Pork-Hawk," June.) Not incidentally, the aircraft was manufactured in Downey's district.
Sen. Phil Gramm (R–Tex.) has a deserved reputation as one of the most fiscally conservative members of Congress. But when his home state was awarded the $6 billion superconducting supercollider, one of the biggest pieces of pork in recent years, Gramm proudly took part in the announcement.
This sort of thing happens all the time. But we shouldn't be too quick to blame our legislators. Representatives who consistently voted against pork for their own districts wouldn't last very long. The voters would find someone who could bring home the bacon.
And if a representative is adept at doing favors for constituents, he not only wins regular reelection but can become a beloved figure. A week after Wright's resignation, Rep. Claude Pepper (D–Fla.) lay in state in the Capitol rotunda. Pepper's biggest accomplishment in his 26 years in the House was taking money from one generation of Americans to pay for the benefits enjoyed by another.
To ascend the ladder of power within Congress, legislators must show that they can help colleagues win spending for their districts. The men and women who become speaker and whip and committee chairmen are the ones who have shown that they will help their colleagues get the spending projects they want. If a legislator consistently refuses to cooperate with the other members, they aren't going to elect him to a position of power.
The system has to be changed. Giving the president a line item veto would allow him to remove pork from the budget. A balanced budget amendment would force lawmakers to choose those programs that are most important, rather than just throwing in each member's pet program. These two measures would remove some of the influences that corrupt legislators. And putting a limit on the number of terms a person could serve would stop legislators from building up 30 years worth of political debts to be repaid.
Until the system is changed, however, we shouldn't be surprised that the people who survive and reach the top are dishonest. In fact, it's surprising to find honest members of Congress. After he spent most of his adult life funneling millions of dollars to Fort Worth, can we really blame Jim Wright for wanting to keep a few thousand for himself?