In its waning months, the 109th Congress has finally achieved a status in politics that the 1919 Black Sox achieved in sports: It is a symbol of utter corruption. Over the past two years, the congressional scandals have traversed the universe from the gross to the grandiose to the grotesque: visits from call girls, gifts of Rolls Royces and fancy commodes, sweetheart deals for contractors, high-paying lobbyist jobs for underachieving children, free vacations for members and their families.
Yet, if the young boy saying “say it ain’t so, Joe” to Shoeless Joe Jackson perfectly summed up the betrayal of the 1919 World Series, the young male pages pursued by former GOP congressman Mark Foley of Florida perfectly summed up the betrayal of the 109th Congress. The public clearly suspects that, in dealing with Foley, House leaders were more concerned with protecting a House seat than a House page. In a CNN poll, 75% of Americans say the Republicans failed to act responsibly, and 52% believe a coverup was attempted.
If the page scandal captures the raw depravity that is the 109th Congress, the proposed solution captures its raw audacity. Faced with the abuse of children, some lawmakers have called for the removal of the children. First voiced by Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., some members have indicated that they would terminate the page service after almost 200 years of tradition. As LaHood explained, “We should not subject young men and women to this kind of activity, this kind of vulnerability.” When asked whether he was suggesting that his colleagues cannot be trusted with children, he responded, “Well, that’s pretty obvious.”
Deliver them from temptation
Though this might seem like preventing bank robbery by getting rid of banks, it makes sense in the parallel moral universe of the 109th Congress. Indeed, these lawmakers appear to have adopted Oscar Wilde’s rule that the only way to be rid of temptation is to yield to it.
Hence, the LaHood proposal: If one cannot deliver one’s colleagues from temptation, you must remove the temptation from one’s colleagues. Presumably, only then could pedophilic members be able to fully focus on the public good.
Under this logic, pages are the problem — lurking in the halls like sirens of destruction for lawmakers. Apostle Peter warned of such temptation with the devil “as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” Only the faithful would survive, he cautioned, and “your brethren” would be brought low by “the same afflictions.”
Fortunately, LaHood’s solution has little support. Yet he and his colleagues may be on to something. While they accept that some members cannot be relied upon to exercise self-restraint with children, they do not address other temptations that have brought their brethren low. For example, why not bar lobbyists? If lawmakers have difficulty showing restraint around children, they’ve shown even less restraint around lobbyists.
The scandals are too numerous to detail, but various members are under criminal investigation, indictment, or federal custody. Former majority leader Tom DeLay is under indictment in Texas; Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., is still trying to explain $90,000 wrapped in foil in his freezer; GOP congressman Bob Ney of Ohio will likely face prison time after pleading guilty to conspiracy and making false statements while former colleague Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California is already in prison for taking more than $2.4 million in bribes.
In addition to various lawmakers still under investigation in the scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, members such as Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., and others have been accused of self-dealing in steering hundreds of millions of federal funds for personal benefit. Dozens of lawmakers have been criticized for having children or spouses working for lobbyists or accepting exorbitant vacations from outside groups. Just this week, the FBI searched homes in an investigation of whether Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., used his position to steer lobbying jobs to his daughter.
LaHood himself has been accused of questionable deals with lobbyists, including his earmarking of millions of dollars to benefit projects and firms. Some of these earmarks involved lobbyists who once sat on LaHood’s fundraising committee. (After the Abramoff scandal, LaHood suddenly announced that he would get rid of his lobbyist-laden committee.) Likewise, LaHood and his wife have also been criticized for their free trips abroad, including one to China paid by the not-for-profit Aspen Institute.
Applying LaHood’s logic, the solution is simple: no lobbyists, no lobbying scandals. Indeed, it is possible to remove every historic temptation from the halls of Congress so members can walk to the floor without a distracting thought. We could ban call girls (common in past scandals) and even order both genders to cover themselves with burqas while visiting congressional offices. The result would be a hermetically sealed, temptation-free environment for our morally challenged leaders.
Yet, it is sometimes more efficient to fence in a risk rather than to force everyone else to fence it out. It follows that it would be far better to fence in our lawmakers rather than fence out temptations such as children, pets or suggestively arranged plants.
Neither efficiency nor morality, however, have been particularly great influences on the 109th Congress. And it is a measure of how out of touch LaHood and company have become that they would address the lack of restraint of some lawmakers by eliminating all pages.
I am no biblical scholar, but when Peter promised that “the Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations,” I don’t think this is what he had in mind.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. He served as a House leadership page in 1977 and 1978.