POLITICS

It's Sad That The Best The Media Can Do To Fight Government Corruption Is Scalp Aaron Schock

03/18/2015 04:50 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2015
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This week, noted ab-haver Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) announced that he will be resigning his seat March 31 under the weight of multiple examples of shady, scandalous behavior. "The constant questions over the last six weeks," said Schock in a statement, "have proven a great distraction that has made it too difficult for me to serve the people of the 18th District with the high standards that they deserve and which I have set for myself." Given the circumstances, Schock's reference to "high standards" itself managed to set a high standard for lack of self-awareness.

Schock's rapid and farcical fall from grace began with a chance encounter between Washington Post reporter Ben Terris and an interior designer named Annie Brahler, whom Schock hired to make over his Capitol Hill office in the ostentatious fashion of the show "Downton Abbey." Terris took a bunch of photos of Schock's chandeliers and feathers, and Schock's communication director attempted to deter Terris from publishing those photos, apparently not knowing or caring how the Streisand Effect works. The result was that more reporters started getting curious about how Schock had been spending his time and money.

Eventually, it became clear that Schock was a serial chiseler, a profligate spender of taxpayer money and apparently a veteran filer of fraudulent reimbursement claims. The coup de grace came in the form of Politico reporters asking after a discrepancy in a mileage reimbursement claim -- Schock had "billed the federal government and his campaign for logging roughly 170,000 miles on his personal car from January 2010 through July 2014," but it turned out that when Schock sold the car, the odometer told the story of a vehicle that had not been driven half as many miles.

Evidently, soon after receiving an inquiry from Politico's reporters, Schock decided that the jig was up, and announced that he was bailing. This was treated as a big deal in the media! But a day later, one unasked question seems to loom: So what?

I sort of hate to prick the balloon of hype and self-congratulation over the scalping of Aaron Schock, but the truth is that the guy's misdeeds really do not amount to a hill of beans, or even a lesser quantity of beans. Like the man himself, Schock's crimes are trivial, and the fact that he ended up getting snared really only underscores how much corruption goes on elsewhere without anyone ever being held accountable for it.

Let's take a brief spin around some recent news, shall we? First stop: the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which is set to be adjudicated by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. This bill is often framed as the result of a collaboration between Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.). But as Hearst's David McCumber reports, at least one lobbying organization for America's polluters -- the American Chemistry Council -- got a crack at the bill, clumsily leaving their digital fingerprints all over it. Jennifer Talhelm, Udall's communications director, responded to this revelation by saying that the bill was "shared with a number of stakeholders" for the purpose of "writing the best possible bill." In this case, that's sort of like asking the foxes for input on henhouse access points.

This week, The Huffington Post's Paul Blumenthal reported on the payday lending industry's massive effort to influence legislation that might regulate their predatory practices and protect consumers from financial harm. The effort was fueled by influence peddlers and dark money, a sector that's been weaponized by the "Supreme Court's 2010 ruling [that] led to the creation of super PACs and nonprofit groups so closely tied to congressional leaders that they regularly receive large contributions from those seeking a foot in the door." (In this particular case, a path was beaten straight to the top of House leadership.)

As Blumenthal reported in a separate article, the 2016 presidential race is essentially happening in an environment where no one is even pretending that campaign finance rules have any teeth at all:

More than a year and a half before Election Day, the 2016 campaign is already showcasing the complete breakdown of a federal campaign finance system rooted in strict limits on donations. Thus far, the unlimited money chase has made the invisible primary -- the period before the actual primary elections when candidates seek to consolidate support among influential party leaders and big-money donors -- rather visible...

At some point before the actual vote-counting starts, the non-candidates will have to reveal their true form and move on from pretending to not be a candidate to pretending to care about campaign finance rules. Then they will, in the eyes of the law, separate themselves from their super PACs and nonprofits.

(As a reminder, the official Eat The Press editorial position on candidates and super PACs is that we refuse to participate in the fiction that there is a separation of any kind between candidates, official campaigns and the super PACs that support them.)

Anyway! These are just this week's stories of institutional corruption for which no one is being shamed, scorched or hounded into resignation.

The fact is that because of the degradation of campaign finance laws, lobbying restrictions and the remnants of any firewall between influence peddlers and the legislators who spend most of their week on the phone with influence peddlers, we've now got a kind of idiot-proof system of corruption-enabling. So if you find yourself at the center of a career-killing media frenzy, it means you are actually dumber than an idiot. You have to be a showy, inept bum like Schock or former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), leaving a paper trail of penny-ante crimes in your wake. Or you have to be caught in some basic example of a quid-pro-quo bribe, where hard currency is left stuffed in a freezer, like former Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.).

Schock's real crime, honestly, was that he didn't play this system correctly and parlay several decades of favor-trading into a big cash-out at the end of his political career. By thinking short instead of thinking long, and feathering his nest with cheap gifts (as well as actual, literal feathers), he broke the unwritten rules of the game. So he's been bounced in disgrace, while, say, former Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) -- one beneficiary of the aforementioned dark money payoffs from the payday lending industry -- gets to lay up in the cut, relaxing with his seven-figure investment bank salary, his reward for playing the game correctly.

The gradual deterioration of our bulwarks against institutional graft is something that former New York gubernatorial contender Zephyr Teachout laid out at length in her 2014 book Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United. In January of this year, after New York Assembly Speaker and fraudster-extraordinaire Sheldon Silver (D) was finally brought low, Teachout accurately observed that "one high-profile indictment does not represent the dawn of a new democracy." Those are words worth remembering as the rest of Schock's saga plays out. As are these, per Teachout:

Corruption exists when institutions and officials charged with serving the public serve their own ends. Under current law, campaign contributions are illegal if there is an explicit quid pro quo, and legal if there isn’t. But legal campaign contributions can be as bad as bribes in creating obligations. The corruption that hides in plain sight is the real threat to our democracy.

Think of campaign contributions as the gateway drug to bribes. In our private financing system, candidates are trained to respond to campaign cash and serve donors’ interests. Politicians are expected to spend half their time talking to funders and to keep them happy. Given this context, it’s not hard to see how a bribery charge can feel like a technical argument instead of a moral one...

The structure of private campaign finance has essentially pre-corrupted our politicians, so that they can’t even recognize explicit bribery because it feels the same as what they do every day.

It's an easy, breezy environment in which to operate. And the media doesn't do much to make it harder. You can find no better illustration of this than when The New York Times' editors were faced with the challenge of rendering their endorsement for the 2014 New York gubernatorial race between Teachout and the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Here are the two infamous paragraphs of the Times' long-winded declaration of cowardice:

Mr. Cuomo became governor on that platform and recorded several impressive achievements, but he failed to perform Job 1. The state government remains as subservient to big money as ever, and Mr. Cuomo resisted and even shut down opportunities to fix it. Because he broke his most important promise, we have decided not to make an endorsement for the Democratic primary on Sept. 9.

His opponent in the primary is Zephyr Teachout, a professor at Fordham Law School who is a national expert on political corruption and an advocate of precisely the kind of transparency and political reform that Albany needs. Her description of Mr. Cuomo as part of a broken system “where public servants just end up serving the wealthy” is exactly on point, but we decline to endorse her because she has not shown the breadth of interests and experience needed to govern a big and diverse state.

The Times declined to endorse Cuomo because of his self-evident corruption, but could not support Teachout because of her lack of "breadth of interests and experience." Of course, the most pertinent kind of "experience" that Cuomo had, and that Teachout lacked, was experience in manipulating a corrupt system to one's own ends. As Gawker's Tom Scocca put it: "It is true that Teachout is not an experienced politician. The experienced politicians in New York State are hacks and criminals. That is the situation that the New York Times editorial board would like you to believe it cares about."

So what, in the end, did Schock do wrong? Simply put, he failed to be corrupt in a way that could supersede the media's default position, in which "good government" types are taken less seriously than the veteran government hacks and crooks who succeed within a broken system, forever spinning through well-greased revolving doors, selling out and falling upward. Schock got laid low because, ultimately, he lacked ambition -- he was scrabbling after nickel-and-dime benefits instead of setting his sights on a bigger payout. He was, compared to those who've mastered the art of institutional corruption, a joke. But -- ha, ha! -- really, the joke's on you.

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