The sickness called Potomac Fever

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?

Political scientists and Constitutional scholars say it could be a bit of both.

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.
  • Ohio Congressman Jim Traficant, the flamboyant former sheriff expelled from Congress and sent to jail for taking bribes, money laundering and racketeering. That didn’t stop him for running for re-election from prison and he still received 15 percent of the vote.
  • And the most recent, California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, sentenced to eight years in prison for taking bribes and evading taxes in what prosecutors say was one of the most flagrant cases of abuse of office in Congressional history.

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. 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 or the many abuses of the Bush administration.

“If the public felt Congress was an honest institution, there might have been more outrage over the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal or the current questions surrounding the Bush administration,” Reeves says. “But many people feel that the people investigating or questioning the President are 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 harasser Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon. Many of Packwood’s Republican colleagues defended him right up until the end. The House Ethics Committee has been reluctant to do anything about the ethics problems surrounding House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Andrea Wamstead knows far too well how Congress works. She worked on the Hill for nearly 20 years before leaving to get married.

“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 or she 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.

“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.”

Capitol Hill Blue asked political scientists, Constitutional professors and sociologists is they thought the system could be changed. All agreed it would take drastic steps.

Baker says candidates for Congress should have to be screened like any prospective employee.

“They should have to undergo extensive background checks as a requirement for candidacy, both criminal and financial. Financial disclosure requirements should be strengthened,” he adds. “Voters shouldn’t be asked to hire somebody on a promise.”
Baker would also like to see an independent Congressional ethics committee that has the power to investigate members without control by either party in Congress or the White House.

“Have the committee answer directly to the Supreme Court,” he says.

Baker admits his ideas would drive other Constitutional experts up the wall because they violate the checks and balances system that is supposed to exists between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, but adds that the Supreme Court alreay exercises control over Congress through its ability to declare laws unconstitutional.

“It would require some changes in constitutional definition, but that might be what is needed to bring the system under control,” he adds.

Reeves advocates term limits for both members of Congress and their staffs.
“Some of the staff members on the Hill have been there longer than any member of Congress,” she says.

Most members of Congress claim term limits isn’t the answer. The voters, they say, impose term limits. But they also know that nine out of all ten incumbents will be re-elected in any given election.

Term limits was part of the “Contract with America” that Newt Gingrich and the Republican used to help win control of Congress in the 1994 elections.

However, the GOP soon forgot about term limits when they took control and several members who vowed to serve only three terms in 1994 are running for fourth terms in 2000.

“There’s a good reason they call it Potomac Fever,” says Baker. “It’s contagious and leads to all kinds of problems.”