Why Congressmen Are Such Easy Marks

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Recent headlines about Congressional misadventures have, I think, given the public the wrong impression of what life is like for your average Representative. Despite the fat-cat stereotype, most members of Congress are relatively unknown and not very savvy. There are hordes of them. They act all important, but they're the interns of elected officialdom. As one staffer I know put it, "The President is one man — they're hundreds of people. If Congress wants the same kind of recognition, they're going to have to figure out how to somehow form one enormous person. Think Power Rangers, but times 100."

That's not what most people think, obviously. To judge by the antics of Representatives Cynthia McKinney, Patrick Kennedy, Katherine Harris and Duke Cunningham, being a member of Congress is a little like being James Bond, without the neat gadgets but also fewer bullets. Still: Car crashes! Fistfights! Luxury yachts, $2,800 dinners and wild card games! The prostitutes reportedly procured for Cunningham don't quite fit into the Bondian mold until you consider that at least Cunningham didn't pay for them himself.

The roguish quality of these exploits dovetails nicely with Americans' rather sordid assumptions about whom they send to the Capitol. Polls have found that most Americans believe both senators and congressmen to be "petty politicians fighting for personal gain," (63%) "out of touch with what's going on in the country," (63%) and 41% believe that their own Congressman has taken a bribe. Of course, they are still electing them — perhaps as a way of rewarding their sheer stick-to-it-iveness and initiative. Being this corrupt, after all, must be hard work. Between the tabloid stories and the presumption of corruption, no wonder the popular stereotype is that of a tanned professional talker with $100 bills coming out of his pockets and gristle from a Charlie Palmer steak still stuck between his molars.

These men do exist. They're called "the leadership." Look below the leadership and the glamour wanes even further. Sure, Katherine Harris had a meal that cost more than most people's rent — it also cost more than most Representatives' rent. A surprising number of members live together in ratty Capitol Hill townhouses, and the entry of each new class brings a handful of Washington "color" stories about which newly elected officials are rooming together. This year's featured the Salazar brothers (Rep. John and Sen. Ken, both D, Colo.) — who share a two-bedroom, one-bath "luxury apartment" — along with an obligatory sitcom pitch: "The Salazars." Two brothers grow up on a ranch, come to Washington and encounter all kinds of goofiness, like an army of reporters in their kitchen asking hygiene questions.

Shared bathrooms, bacheloresque cooking mishaps — it's a fitting lifestyle for a group whose official perks include, according to Wikipedia, "low-cost haircuts" and a gym membership. Also, their signature is worth as much as a stamp. (Which, come to the think of it, was the hallmark of another penny-ante House scandal of the '90s.) And as for that Congressional pin that can get you around Hill metal detectors, well, that and $2,800 can buy you a really nice dinner. It's not even much of a chick magnet; in 2003, New Jersey Representative Mike Ferguson made the Washington Post with his late-night attempt to impress a Georgetown student:

"Mezoe said the incident began around 1 a.m. as she strolled past Ferguson, who was leaning against the bar on the second floor. She said Ferguson, a Georgetown alum, grabbed her by the arm and pulled her toward him, introducing himself as a member of Congress. He pulled out his congressional ID card, she said, and pointed to his pin. 'That's special,' she said sarcastically. "'Yes, it is special,'" he replied earnestly, she said."

So no wonder they cheat. No wonder they're swayed by fancy suites and golf outings. They frankly don't have much else going for them. The best thing an honest Congressman can hope for is to get elected to the Senate. That, and maybe get a bridge or two named after him.

Because, of course, despite their junior-varsity mentality, Representatives have a very powerful tool at their disposal: the Constitution. They can overturn the President, amend the Constitution, and put money into the pockets of anyone who can convince them it's a good idea. As my staffer friend said, "So you have these nobodies — and believe me, there are plenty of them — who all of a sudden think they are running the country, because in a lot of ways they are." It's this power that makes them the target of lobbyists and influence peddlers, and it's their lack of status that makes them such easy prey.