Commentary

Dial Down Corruption Fears: Media will expose lawmakers whose relatives don’t deserve pay

This article originally appeared in USA Today on April 19, 2005.
At least four dozen members of Congress pay family members for work out of campaign funds. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has paid his wife and daughter $500,000 since 2001 to work on his campaigns. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., paid her son $130,000 over four years for campaign work.

How do I know this? Did I get it from my friends on Capitol Hill? Was it announced last week at a meeting of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy? (I’m kidding about the meeting.) Actually, I learned all of that and more from stories by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press.

I also learned why members of Congress hire family members. Some said they were the most qualified. Others argued they saved the campaign money. A few hired family members as campaign treasurers because they trusted them not to steal. In short, the media have disclosed that members of Congress hire family for campaign work.

The media also forced the officeholders to justify employing their wives and children. Perhaps they are lying about their justifications. The media will find out whether they are lying. I have faith in their courage and powers of investigation and exposure.

We’ll learn if members have hired their children for no-show jobs as a way to funnel campaign contributions into their own bank accounts. The constituents of these members of Congress will have ample information to decide whether hiring a family member is wrong. The members who’ve actually diverted funds will go to federal prison.

We protect the freedom of the press and of speech to expose such corruption (or even the “appearance” of wrongdoing). On this issue, our current system of disclosure and exposure seems to be working reasonably well.

If we have a corruption problem here, why have no members been indicted for diverting campaign funds to family members? If the appearance of corruption has undermined confidence in government, why have public trust in the federal government and public approval of Congress both risen sharply during the past decade?

People with hammers see nails everywhere. Perhaps, for once, we might notice the absence of a nail before we swing our hammer of ethics regulation.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute and co-editor of The Republican Revolution 10 Years Later: Smaller Government or Business as Usual?