Getting Rich Off Public Service?

The editors at the Washington Examiner wonder how it is that politicians who come to office with little money leave it as millionaires. They intimate that it’s good old fashioned bribery, although the examples they give are far afield and rather inconclusive.

They rightly note that Bill and Hillary Clinton’s “worries about paying off a $10 million legal bill at the end of Bill’s two terms as chief executive have become a distant memory thanks to his lucrative speaking fees.” They don’t mention her own bestselling autobiography, the advance for which was paid just before she joined the Senate and would have been precluded from accepting it owing to ethics rules. Still, while there may be an argument to be made that it’s unseemly to use the presidency as a launching point for a career as an incredibly well paid public speaker, it doesn’t speak to the thesis; Clinton only got rich after he left office and there’s no indication that his lavish fees are quid pro quo for favors he performed as president. For that matter, while it may be the case that “the potential conflicts of interest boggle the imagination” if Hillary is elected president and Bill has a major public policy voice (and, for that matter, those conflicts exist now, given that Hillary is a powerful Senator) every nickel they both earn is public record; the voters therefore have the information necessary to make that judgment.

And, to borrow from the “but Bill Clinton did it, too” meme, I’d point out that Ronald Reagan was probably the first ex-president to seriously cash in on the lecture circuit.

The other examples are marky.

Consider the case of Sen. Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican whose total assets are valued at between $1.75 million and $2.77 million, according to his latest disclosure form. Lott’s lot has changed since 2001, when Time magazine said he had not “accumulated any significant wealth” during his career.

Since then, he has become famous for championing earmarks, including the biggest one ever, the $700 million “Railroad to Nowhere” last year. Lott’s son was a lobbyist for a Kentucky firm well-positioned to benefit from the project that, though defeated last year, could reappear in a different guise.

The juxtaposition of Lott’s asset holdings and his support of earmarks is troubling and speaks to real problems with the way public monies are allocated. Yet, the insinuation that Lott is somehow personally profiting from those earmarks ought be substantiated by something other than the post hoc ergo propter hoc assumption. Without checking into his financial records, I don’t know how he suddenly became so wealthy. My guess, however, living as I do in the DC Metro area, is that Lott owns a home in the area and its value skyrocketed.

Then there is former House Speaker Denny Hastert, whose net worth when he entered Congress in 1987 reportedly was $170,000. After getting earmarks in 2005 worth more than $200 million for a highway project a couple of miles from real estate he bought the year before, Hastert and a partner realized a profit of $1.8 million by selling to a developer.

I’d have to know more about this sequence of events to render a judgment here. Again, though, whether Hastert did anything improper, the fact that he can use his office to direct monies to specific projects in his district leads to this kind of speculation.

The recent 16-count indictment of Louisiana Democrat Rep. William Jefferson and the continuing probe of the earmark fandangos of Rep. Allan Molohan, D-W.Va., show this is a bipartisan problem.

Well, no, it shows that two Congressmen are likely taking bribes. The antecedent “this” does not fit Lott and Hastert’s cases, at least not with the information provided, let alone Clinton’s.

With more than 32,000 earmark requests pending with the House Appropriations Committee after only five months of the current Congress, it is no surprise that people are putting two and two together and getting four. It seems the ticket is to gain federal office, take advantage of the perks and the deals that can be made because of the position and the opportunities it creates, then watch as the bank account swells.

The Teapot Dome and Credit Mobilier scandals show that using public office for personal gain is not a new story. But at nearly $6,000 a minute for a former president’s speech and earmarks worth hundreds of millions becoming the congressional norm, it could easily be a much bigger story than ever before.

Again, I’d like more evidence that lobbyist money is making it to Congressmen’s private bank accounts. There’s no doubt, though, that millions are pouring into campaign coffers.

A piece in yesterday’s Washington Post Magazine gives a devastating account of how freshmen members hit the ground running for their re-election campaign. New Speaker Nancy Pelosi is making no secret of using massive amounts of earmarks to ensure that these freshman have plenty of pork to pave their way to re-election:

The House Democratic leadership has begun bolstering the stature of [Rep. Joe] Courtney [D, CT] and other new Democratic members: showing them off at events with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, including them as co-sponsors of major pieces of legislation and praising their performance at news conferences. Politics is about nothing if not self-interest and the maintenance of power, and in the past, the self-interest of senior members dictated that House freshmen subserviently wait in line behind them for everything — particularly powerful committee assignments and prime speaking time on the House floor. Not now. During the opening weeks, Courtney and other Democratic freshmen received speaking assignments on the floor during the Democrats’ much-touted “100 Hour Agenda” — a mix of bills addressing high-profile domestic issues such as the minimum wage, Medicare prescription drugs and loan rates on college tuition.

Some older Democratic bulls complained privately that they were being overlooked in favor of the freshmen. Pelosi reminded them that they wouldn’t have their new power in the House but for the many newcomers, whom she calls “Majority Makers.” In a favor seldom bestowed on freshmen in other eras, Courtney and many other new members have received their choice of key committees. Courtney won spots on the Education and Labor Committee and, potentially even more important for him, the influential Armed Services Committee. That body annually examines an important budgetary issue for Courtney: the building of nuclear-powered, attack submarines, which accounts for the jobs of more than 6,000 of his constituents.

The real crime is that all this is perfectly legal. It’s corruption of the highest order, in that it’s institutionalized. None of this is illegal, nor does it indicate that Members are lining their pockets. My guess is that that’s rare, indeed. But hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are being siphoned off for dubious projects that are de facto campaign contributions to incumbents.

My guess is that much more pay-for-play action is taking place at the local level. Barbara Hollingsworth‘s piece, also in today’s Examiner, about the $5.14 billion (and counting) program aimed at “extending Metrorail through Tysons Corner to Dulles International Airport” that “has become the most expensive transit project in the nation, as well as the largest public works project in Virginia history” is much more persuasive on that score than the op-ed.

The great irony is that the Framers put most of the power at the state and local level on the assumption that people would watch their local leaders much more closely than the folks far away in D.C. That may have been true even half a century ago; it’s not now.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Outright bribery is not required to explain why so many “public servants” seem to prosper so handsomely from their tenure in government. You may not be familiar with a bit of old Chicago political wisdom, but it’s apt: never accept a bribe; just hand them your business card.

    Sad as it is to say there are only two reasons for seeking political office: rent-seeking and the desire for power.

    My own experience growing up in a political family and knowing, over the years, many, many politicians is that however benign the intentions may be at the start of a political career, if the career is of any real duration, the public good is completely conflated with personal good.

  2. Mark says:

    Regarding Trent Lott, he is the brother-in-law of mega-trial lawyer Richard Scruggs, who won negotiated the settlement in the big tobacco case for Mississippi among other things.

  3. Bandit says:

    My wife’s uncle was a 16 term US Rep – when he passed away because of my work I was privy to some of the details of the estate – it was substantial by just about anyone’s standards – there were also substantial holdings in rental property real estate development and I know this is very common among politicians – it’s the basis of the Kennedy Trust and also Kerry, – one benefit to that is they tend to skirt direct conflicts of interest with businesses they are going to potentially be involved with – eventhough the conflicts of interest with developers/contributors are potentially huge – absolutely no hints of impropriety or corruption – but certainly there is the ear to ground benefit