Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Politicians at the moat -- Dec. 22, 2009 column


As if people weren’t cynical enough about politicians, Great Britain and the United States have had a year that accentuated the negative.

In Britain, the Telegraph newspaper has regaled readers for months with tales of high-living Members of Parliament and the lavish personal expenses they’ve billed to taxpayers.

A former Conservative Cabinet member deliciously named Douglas Hogg billed his countrymen for “having the moat cleared, piano tuned and stable lights fixed at his country manor house,” the Telegraph reported.

My favorite is Sir Peter Viggers, a 25-year Member of Parliament, whose invoices included nearly $48,000 in gardening expenses and $4,000 for a floating duck house on a pond at his estate. This, as you guessed, is no ordinary duck shelter. It’s nearly 5-feet high and designed to look like an 18th century Swedish building, according to the Telegraph.

Compared with such extravagances, the mini-scandal that has enlivened the Senate health-care debate seems Puritanical.

Democratic senators negotiated secret side deals for their votes on health-care reform, and Republicans accused them of taxpayer-funded bribery and corruption. But the Americans have no smoking moat.

So far, it appears that the Democrats’ intention with their private deals was to improve the lives of their constituents through better health care.

To be sure, the Senate leadership’s need to secure 60 votes to pass health-care reform made the bargaining unsavory, but it’s hardly news that members of Congress work hard to bring home the bacon. Republicans also have had their snouts in the trough over the years.

Still, after the last presidential election with all the talk about change in Washington, it’s disappointing to watch Democrats’ full-throated defense of business as usual.

“Every senator uses whatever leverage they have to help their states,” David Axelrod, top campaign strategist for Barack Obama and now a senior White House adviser, said Sunday on CNN. “That’s the way is has been. That’s the way it will always be.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested that senators who failed to win a goodie or two for their constituents were negligent.

“There are 100 senators here, and I don’t know that there’s a senator that doesn’t have something in this bill that isn’t important to them,” Reid told reporters. “If they don’t have something in it important to them, then it doesn’t speak well of them.”

You had to feel sorry for freshman Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado who confessed on the Senate floor that he hadn’t gotten a thing for his state and was going to vote for health-care reform anyway.

This doesn’t inspire confidence. Last month, Gallup reported that 55 percent of Americans believe the honesty and ethical standards of “members of Congress” were low or very low. That survey, taken before news broke about the special deals, also found that senators fared slightly better, with 49 percent of Americans saying senators had low or very low ethical standards.

Americans hate the idea that a powerful senator can get special treatment for his state, paid for by the rest of us. Congressional earmarks supposedly were banned. But if special projects live, we need full disclosure of who is seeking what.

Many people criticized Sen. Ben Nelson’s deal to get Nebraska a free ride on a nationwide expansion of Medicaid. But if taxpayers are going to pay for something parochial, it’s better that it’s health care for poor people than a “bridge to nowhere.”

Among other deals: A health-care facility was proposed for an unnamed state where there is only one public medical and dental school. Sen. Chris Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, owned up to writing the measure and said he hoped Connecticut would qualify. He also insisted, perhaps disingenuously, that the state would have to compete for the money.

Under another, Medicare coverage would be extended to victims of asbestos poisoning, which Sen. Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, explained, benefits the people of Libby, Mont., who have been sickened by dust from a vermiculite mine.

In Britain, Sir Peter of the duck house says he always followed the rules, but he’s not standing for re-election. Many others caught in the expenses scandal are bowing out.

Here, Republicans will use the special deals against Democrats in the 2010 congressional elections.

Whoever wins, though, we need full disclosure of the special projects formerly known as earmarks. Some things don’t change.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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