This ought to have been a happy time for New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. The Democrat who was re-elected easily last November is succeeding John Kerry as chairman of the important Foreign Relations Committee. That should afford him the opportunity to continue to cement his role as a major player in the Senate. Given Menendez’s strong support for Israel and his willingness to stand up to the administration on issues like Iran sanctions, his elevation was seen as an improvement over Kerry even by many Republicans. But instead of basking in the glow of his rise to new prominence the senator is spending his time dodging the press and refusing to answer questions about his efforts to help the business of a wealthy donor and his alleged participation in sex parties with prostitutes that were hosted by his friend.
The story mixes the more mundane ethical questions about how far politicians are prepared to go to help their donors and the free stuff they get in return–including flights and vacations in the Dominican Republic that Menendez has already been hounded into paying for. But when the free stuff includes sex with underage prostitutes, as the Daily Caller has reported, then it becomes a toxic mix of good government concerns and tabloid sensationalism.
All this places Menendez in the soup and makes his otherwise charmed existence a living hell so long as the press is interested in pursuing the story. But, if there are no real consequences, either in terms of prosecution or political retribution for the senator, it is entirely possible that once the dust settles he will remain in his seat and continue on as if nothing had happened. If so, is this just a matter of political business as usual and a partisan press dredging up a salacious story to embarrass a public figure? That may be what Menendez and those spinning for him will tell us, but there is more here at stake than his fate. Though there are many examples of the public giving ethically challenged politicians a pass, that doesn’t mean we should tolerate this sort of behavior.
In the past few years, there are some examples of politicians who paid with their careers for misbehavior. Eliot Spitzer felt compelled to resign when his patronage of high-end prostitutes was revealed. Representative Chris Lee, a Western New York Republican, was more or less thrown out of Congress by John Boehner after he was outed for doing some online philandering, including a shirtless photo. More memorably, Anthony Weiner resigned after his bizarre practice of sending naked photos of himself to women via Twitter was uncovered.
Of the three, only Lee could be said to have lost his career simply because of misconduct. Spitzer’s attempts to cover his tracks involved money laundering. Had he been on the other side of the bar in this case, the former prosecutor would almost certainly have insisted on indicting anyone who did the same; but fortunately for him, the authorities contented themselves with his resignation. Weiner’s weeks of public lying about the case and his false accusations that the late Andrew Breitbart concocted the story was more culpable than his strange doings.
Others have been luckier. Louisiana Senator David Vitter was twice linked to prostitution but refused to resign. That may have something to do with his state’s somewhat liberal approach to ethics, and the Republican is actually contemplating a run for governor after Bobby Jindal leaves office.
As for cases that were just about corruption without any sex, New York Representative Charles Rangel broke laws and evaded taxes, but few in his district or his party seem to care and he remains a much-liked institution within the House Democratic caucus.
Menendez is certainly hoping to get the Vitter or Rangel treatment, and maybe he will if evidence uncovered by the FBI (which recently raided the offices of his donor and friend Dr. Salomon Mengen) or the Senate Ethics Committee aren’t able to prosecute or censure him.
In an era where the public’s cynicism about Congress has risen to alarming levels, there is a tendency to react to any ethical violation with an “everyone does it” attitude. A country that not only forgave Bill Clinton’s lies and disgusting behavior but regarded his critics as worthier of criticism than the former president may think any story involving sex is, almost by definition, not worth getting worked up about.
But there are good reasons to care about the Menendez story.
The first is that if Menendez has involved the Senate in a business transaction between the United States and the Dominican Republic in order to benefit a friend there are obvious legal implications. Politicians do favors for friends and donors all the time and label it constituent service. But the favors being thrown around by Mengen to his favorite senator do raise questions about Menendez’s motives.
Since the Citizens United decision freed up individuals and groups to contribute to candidates and causes without federal interference, liberals have acted as if advocacy on issues is corrupt if it involves spending money. But the real corruption doesn’t involve left-wing and media piñatas like Sheldon Adelson, who spend their money to promote their beliefs, but rather traditional influence peddlers like Menendez whose purchase is motivated by strictly pecuniary interests.
Second, the sex angle isn’t just the sort of hanky-panky on the side that is an unfortunate Congressional tradition, but about prostitution. Libertarians may see it as a victimless crime, and perhaps when it is the sort of pricey operation that Spitzer patronized that’s how we should think of it. But what is alleged in this story is something far more sordid and not only because it may have involved under-aged prostitutes.
Human trafficking in countries like the Dominican Republic is a problem that the United States has not always treated as a serious concern. It is a terrible crime against women and girls that goes on throughout the world and draws relatively limited attention from both governments and the press. If a U.S. Senator, especially one that has spoken up in different contexts as a voice for human rights, is guilty of taking part in sex parties where such girls are procured, this is a far greater scandal than a mere conflict of interest case or free trips.
Third, though it is considered a somewhat antiquated concept in our enlightened times, the idea that our political leaders should be held to a high standard of personal conduct is one that deserves more support rather than the usual derision. Public office is a privilege and not a possession even if you are a Democrat in a deep blue state or a Republican in a red one with little fear of political opponents. When our leaders degrade themselves in this manner they do more than provide fodder for the tabloids. They shame our republic and the voters that honored them with office. It is not Puritanism to demand that senators and members of Congress behave in an honorable manner and to avoid bringing their offices into disrepute.
Menendez deserves a presumption of innocence, but if there is some fire behind all this smoke there have to be consequences for him.