By Marie Cocco
It is the ordinariness of it all that leaves an impression. The Viking gas grill. The massage chair. The new deck for his house. A steel sculpture of migrating salmon, for heaven’s sake.
For this, Ted Stevens—one of the lions of the Senate—was willing to forfeit the kingdom.
Stevens’ conviction on federal charges that he took these gifts from an Alaska oil services company and others, then failed to report them as required on Senate financial disclosure forms, came after a trial that was a showcase for the banality of congressional corruption. The pettiness almost made you yearn for a revelation to rival the audacity of that golf junket to the fabled St. Andrews links in Scotland, the extravagance that is the best-remembered symbol of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
With Stevens, there was a smallness that revealed the larger sense of entitlement so many lawmakers come to possess. “The little things prove the big things,” prosecutor Brenda Morris said during her closing argument. So they did.
Stevens’ conviction does not force him to give up his Senate seat, the post from which he secured billions in public money for projects in Alaska—the type of spending uniformly, though not always accurately, described as pork. The longest-serving Republican senator says he’ll appeal.
It is an understatement to say that the odds of Democrat Mark Begich defeating Stevens in next week’s election have improved substantially. So have the Democrats’ chances of winning enough Senate races to boost their majority in the chamber to a magic 60 seats—the number needed to thwart Republican filibusters.
Democrats can celebrate the Stevens conviction, but only with a good dose of caution. For power is the breeding ground of scandal, and history shows that scandal knows no party.
There was once a towering figure much like Stevens—a one-man powerhouse, respected by his colleagues and beloved by his constituents. His name is Dan Rostenkowski and during his tenure as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, many sought his favor. Few would cross him.
After more than three decades in office, the Democrat from Chicago was charged with malfeasance that is stunning in its similarity to the triteness of Stevens’ take: Rostenkowski was convicted of mail fraud for such misdeeds as using public funds to pay staffers to mow the lawn at his summer home and take photographs at his daughters’ weddings. The gifts “Rosty” was accused of improperly bestowing on friends were souvenirs—carved chairs and crystal replicas of the Capitol dome. Nonetheless, Rostenkowski served prison time and, after his release, was pardoned by President Clinton.
Now another Ways and Means Committee chairman is under a cloud. New York Democrat Charlie Rangel asked the House Ethics Committee to look into a range of controversies that have dogged him in the media: unpaid taxes of about $10,000 on rental income he says he didn’t know he was receiving from a vacation home in the Dominican Republic; multiple apartments in New York that he leased under a municipal rent-stabilization law, and which are coveted by squeezed, middle-income city residents; using congressional stationery to seek funds for an academic center that bears his name. Again, there is no eye-popping lavishness but a laxity that reveals an indifference to the rules under which average Americans live—rules they justifiably demand their representatives follow.
None of this comes close to the “culture of corruption” that infested the House when Republicans ruled. Former Republican leader Tom DeLay and his colleagues weaved a web of corruption that linked lawmakers, lobbyists, campaign contributions, junkets and all manner of gifts to the passage—or strategic blocking—of legislation. It was in this climate that Democrats took control of Capitol Hill in the 2006 elections.
Now the Democrats are poised to enhance their majorities in both the House and the Senate. That power is badly needed to move the country beyond the Bush era. Congress and the new president must navigate the endgame of two wars, find a way out of the economic mess, begin addressing the crisis in health care and find some path to fiscal sanity. The consequences of failure are dire.
The distraction of personal or official malfeasance—however mundane the circumstances—can only inflame partisanship and impede progress. The lesson Democrats must take from the Stevens case is not to gloat over the Republicans’ dirty hands, but to make sure their own are scrupulously clean.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group