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Can Congress Be Saved from Its Own Greed?

Charlie Rangel's ethics situation illustrates the culture of greed on Capitol Hill and makes us wonder if there is anything that can be done to keep our leaders honest.

by
Tom Morgan

Bio

July 30, 2010 - 12:00 am

Charlie Rangel’s ethics situation reminds me of a story my grandfather told about a customer of his grocery store. When grandfather’s back was turned, the man plucked a grape from the display and popped it into his mouth.

“From then on, in my mind, he was a common thief,” Grandpa said. He said two things came to his mind. It was only one grape. It belonged to another. It was the second thought that stuck in his craw. The man damned himself in my grandfather’s eyes, for the sake of one grape. “A thief’s a thief whether it’s a grape or a bundle or a truckload of them.”

He was of Truman’s vintage. I believe he would have enjoyed anecdotes that claimed Truman bought his own stamps for his letters to Bess from the White House.

I cannot say or suggest the rumors about Rangel are true. Did he let corporations pay for his trips to Caribbean conferences? Did he take advantage of his position to park a car for free for a lengthy period? Did he push legislation that favored donors to his charity? Did he make improper use of four rent-controlled apartments? Did he fail to report assets and income to authorities as required by law?

Yes, there is a lot of smoke. But we may never know. His lawyers may or may not work out a deal before his trial in September.  He may admit to some infraction and walk away from accusations.

Of course, he joins a long list of politicians accused of theft petty and large over the years. Many landed in jail. It was in contemplation of some of them that brought my grandfather’s story to mind.

From time to time corruption in Washington grows so obvious the pols set up a commission to tell them what is honest and what is not. The commission lists the things they can and cannot accept from lobbyists and friends. It will set dollar limits on items. Politicians will swear to abide by the restrictions. Influence buyers will search for loopholes before the rules are printed.

In my twenties I sat at a meeting of my company’s salespeople. Their discussion swung to expense accounts. This was before credit cards were so widely used. One man said he never put down the full cost of dinners because he ate a lot. He put some of the dinner charges on his breakfast and lunch expenses. Another put down the same amount for meals every day rather than keep track of each meal.

After he heard a number of these strategies, the boss asked: “When you write up your expenses, why don’t you just tell the truth?”  By the looks on the faces I guessed this was a new thought for many of them.

We know our politicians accept favors. We know they come up with convoluted systems to disguise the gifts. We know they make sure their fingerprints rarely appear on them. We have heard their glib explanations for sweetheart mortgages and junkets. We have heard them claim that what they received, or took, or extorted was picayune, or taken innocently. None of this differs in nature from nicking a grape or five bucks for a lunch they never ate. A crook is a crook is a crook. Ask a million or a dollar for giving sex and you become a hooker.

Warren Buffet’s partner, Charlie Munger, writes about what he regards as the “reciprocation tendency” in On Success. We consciously or subconsciously want to reciprocate favors, he says. The tendency is stronger when it’s our employer’s money we use for paying back. The tendency is particularly strong when it is government’s money.

Munger feels Sam Walton was wise to prohibit, absolutely, any gifts or favors for his Walmart buyers: “He wouldn’t let purchasing agents accept so much as a hot dog from a vendor.” Munger said that if he controlled the Defense Department its policies would mimic Walton’s.

Would that be too high a bar for our politicians? If those in Congres were prohibited from accepting so much as a stick of gum, would it keep honest and decent people from running? Would we, the people, gain all that much? Perhaps we would.

Munger writes that one psychology researcher blamed Watergate on the genetic tendency we have to reciprocate favors. He felt it encouraged the attorney general to go along with the burglary that — when botched — began the debacle. That mess felled a president. With his fall came changes of all dimension in U.S. and world affairs.

Countrywide Financial Corp was knee-deep in the housing mess that nearly brought down our financial house. Rep. Darrell Issa’s oversight committee found the company made 150 sweetheart loans to Fannie Mae employees. These included the executives at the top. Fannie Mae granted Countrywide favored treatment. Reciprocal?

Issa’s probe also found Countrywide made 30 sweetheart loans to U.S. senators and their employees. What favors did they get in return?

Our congress people are blessed and cursed with the same genes the Watergate Attorney General John Mitchell was. Call me an idealist, but it seems to me we would all be better off if our laws commanded we do them no favors and that they accept none.

Not one grape’s worth.

Tom Morgan is a money commentator and creator of the radio program "Tom Morgan's Moneytalk."
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