Commentary Magazine


Topic: Louisiana Senate race

Congressional Residency Scandals Are Bunk

It’s hard to muster much sympathy for U.S. Senators. But let’s pause for a moment and commiserate with Mary Landrieu and Pat Roberts, two senators who apparently don’t own homes in the states they represent. While the symbolism of their decisions resonates in an era in which the public rightly resent Washington and the political class that call it home, the residency gap actually tells us more about changing public expectations of members of Congress than it does about their connection to home.

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It’s hard to muster much sympathy for U.S. Senators. But let’s pause for a moment and commiserate with Mary Landrieu and Pat Roberts, two senators who apparently don’t own homes in the states they represent. While the symbolism of their decisions resonates in an era in which the public rightly resent Washington and the political class that call it home, the residency gap actually tells us more about changing public expectations of members of Congress than it does about their connection to home.

Roberts, who has represented Kansas in the Senate since 1996, had a near political death experience in a primary against a Tea Party challenger largely because of revelations that his official Kansas residence is the home of a supporter to whom he only pays rent when he is there campaigning. His Freudian slip in which he said he only lived in the state when he had an election challenge understandably didn’t sit well with fellow Kansans. Indeed, the 78-year-old is so unpopular these days that he might actually be in danger of losing a safe Republican seat in a 3-way general election race in which an independent rather than the Democratic nominee is the bigger threat.

Facing a similar barrage of criticism is Democrat Mary Landrieu who is also one of the most endangered of a group of red state incumbent senators up for re-election. It turns out Landrieu doesn’t own a residence in Louisiana but instead sleeps in her old room in her father’s home in New Orleans when in the state. The fact that she and her husband list their Capitol Hill home as their residence in official documents doesn’t help her persuade voters that there is nothing fishy about bunking with dad.

Like Roberts’s opponents, GOP challenger Bill Cassidy is making a meal out of these revelations and arguing that this proves that the senator is not only part and parcel of the DC liberal establishment but also out of touch with Louisianans.

For Landrieu, who is already dealing with a scandal about her use of government funds to pay for campaign expenses and the overall burden of being a member of Barack Obama’s party in a very red and conservative state, this might really be the tipping point in a race that already seemed to be going against her. In a year in which the GOP may be on the verge of taking back control of the Senate, Landrieu’s failure to have her own place to crash in while in Louisiana may prove to be a very expensive mistake.

But while not having your own home in the state you represent is a perfect metaphor for the idea that politicians go native once they roost in the Capitol, let’s also understand that this is more than a bit unfair.

For most of our history, members of the House and Senate were not expected, as they are today, to race back and forth between their districts and states and Washington every week to show constituents they care. Instead, they simply moved themselves to Washington for the duration of each lengthy session. Their children (such as former Vice President Al Gore, the son of a Tennessee senator) were educated in Washington and only saw “home” in the summers. But in the age of jet travel and increased media attention, members of Congress are now generally expected to spend weekends at home and tend only to stay in the Capitol during the week.

That requires them to have two places to live. Though they make far more than the average American, it’s not enough for those who are not wealthy to maintain themselves in two homes. That leaves them with the choice of whether their main residence is going to be in their states or in Washington. Many opt for the former and bunk in Spartan style in shared apartments or even their offices during the week. Others, whether because of a desire to keep their families together or because of their spouse’s career, have their main home in the DC area and have a less substantial arrangement in their constituency. This is an especially tough decision for those who don’t hail from states that are in easy commuting distance from the capital.

There’s nothing immoral about either choice. As long as we expect these people to live in two places and pay them only enough to live decently in one, we can’t expect anything else. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not in favor of a pay increase for Congress (or at least not until they pass a balanced budget and stop spending our money like drunken sailors). But the question of residency is about symbolism not substance.

In the case of Roberts, it does look like he hasn’t actually lived in Kansas much but given that these days Congress is pretty much in continuous session (as opposed to previous eras when recesses were far longer), can his lack of a home there really be held against him in the absence of proof that he doesn’t perform adequate constituent service or speak up for the interests of his state? The same applies for Landrieu who at least can say she actually grew up in the place she stays in when in Louisiana.

We do have a right to expect our representatives and senators to retain a primary allegiance to their districts and states and resentment of those politicians who have largely abandoned their constituents and aligned themselves with lobbyists and party establishments deserve the criticism they get. Politicians should be smart enough to maintain a credible proof of residency in the places where they vote, a test that Roberts may have failed. But such scandals are strictly gotcha politics. There may be good reasons for citizens of Kansas and Louisiana to oust their senators but this isn’t one of them.

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Planes, Buses, and Failing Dem Campaigns

This has not been a good week for Democrats running for the Senate. But rather than their problems being focused on the congressional party’s difficult relationship with President Obama or the burden that defending his policies has placed upon Democratic incumbents in red states, this week their problem is on transportation. No, not transportation policy but the fact that shady transactions to pay for their campaign transportation are creating a distraction that is making it harder for the party’s candidates in Kentucky and Louisiana to stay close to their Republican rivals.

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This has not been a good week for Democrats running for the Senate. But rather than their problems being focused on the congressional party’s difficult relationship with President Obama or the burden that defending his policies has placed upon Democratic incumbents in red states, this week their problem is on transportation. No, not transportation policy but the fact that shady transactions to pay for their campaign transportation are creating a distraction that is making it harder for the party’s candidates in Kentucky and Louisiana to stay close to their Republican rivals.

Today’s unwelcome headline for the president’s party concerns Kentucky senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes. Grimes has been losing ground recently in her efforts to unseat Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, so the last thing she needed was for Politico to start taking an interest in how she’s paying for her campaign bus. But rather than paying attention to her attacks on McConnell or even her efforts to distance herself from President Obama and his attacks on the coal industry, the publication devoted a major feature today to the question of a possible scandal involving an in-kind contribution from the candidate’s father that may violate campaign finance laws.

Politico’s analysis of Federal Election Commission records shows that the costs listed for the campaign bus that she has been using to crisscross the Bluegrass State are a fraction of what the going rate for renting such a vehicle would be. The reason for this anomaly is that a company owned by Grimes’s father Jerry Lundergan, a former Democratic Party state chairman and legislator, operates the bus. The difference between the fair market value of the rental and the minimal rate her campaign is paying constitutes an illegal in-kind contribution and may open Lundergan to an FEC investigation and fines.

As Politico notes, catering and event planning companies owned by Lundergan have handled much of the details and logistics of his daughter’s effort to win a Senate seat. This has enabled her to save a lot of money. As the story related, though the Grimes campaign hasn’t stinted on the frills associated with campaign events, including some held at exclusive venues, she has still managed to spend far less on such items than comparable events held by McConnell. While some might focus on the fact that her campaign has spent a considerable amount on services provided by companies that are either owned by her relatives or those that employ them, the real problem here is that the Lundergan clan appears to be skirting laws that strictly regulate the way candidates raise and spend money.

This is not the first time Lundergan has run into trouble with the law. The candidate’s father was forced to resign as state chairman after being convicted of a felony in 1989 for accepting no-bid contracts for the Democrats that were not only shady but violations of the law. However, he avoided further trouble when courts ruled his actions to be a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

Does any of this rise to the level of a full-blown scandal that could sink Grimes? No. But it is a distraction as well as a disturbing reminder of her father’s troubled ethical past. And it comes just at the time when she needs to start building momentum rather than letting McConnell expand his narrow lead as the campaign heads into the fall homestretch.

At the same time, the far more serious questions being asked about Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s use of government funds to pay for campaign expenses are starting to get louder. Reviews of her schedule in the past few years have revealed two more campaign trips that were paid for by the taxpayers rather than the senator’s donors.

Landrieu is attempting to downplay the revelations as being just a “minor mistake.” Were she safely reelected, she might be able to stick to that story and, like Missouri’s Senator Claire McCaskill, just pay a fine and back taxes on ill-gotten savings that helped her stay in office. But since this has come out while she is fighting for her political life, Landrieu may pay a higher cost in lost votes than she ever will in accounting for the way her campaign has looted the public treasury. The mere fact that Rep. Bill Cassidy has been able to dub her campaign “Air Landrieu” may cause more of a problem than the efforts of ethics probers.

Neither Grimes nor Lundergan should be counted out just because of these problems, but the difficulties both are facing have added to the handicaps that have been placed upon their reelection efforts by the president’s policies. At a time when they would have both liked to stay on the offensive, their transportation problems have given their opponents damaging talking points and set back an already uphill struggle for Democrats this fall.

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Another Nail in the Dems’ Senate Coffin?

Just when pundits were starting to agree that the odds are tipping in favor of the Republicans winning control of the Senate this November, reports of inquiries about potential misconduct by Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu may make the embattled Red state Democrat’s re-election fight may be another nail in her party’s midterms coffin.

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Just when pundits were starting to agree that the odds are tipping in favor of the Republicans winning control of the Senate this November, reports of inquiries about potential misconduct by Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu may make the embattled Red state Democrat’s re-election fight may be another nail in her party’s midterms coffin.

The story, published Friday night by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, reveals that in response to charges from her Republican challengers that she has been paying for campaign expenses, including flights, from official government funds rather than her private account, the senator has ordered an inquiry into the records of her office during the last 18 years she has been in the Senate. While the senator may hope this gesture may quiet her critics, the inquiry by her own legal counsel will not convince many people of her innocence even if it exonerates her. If anything, it draws more attention to allegations that could be both embarrassing and result in serious ethics charges.

Unfortunately, for the senator, her lawyer won’t be the only one looking into her affairs. On Thursday, CNN reported that Landrieu had reimbursed the Senate the $5,700 charge for a charter flight home from Washington for a campaign appearance. Anyone who thinks that was the first such instance in which the Louisiana senator has played that trick is probably willing to buy a bridge across the Mississippi. If the Senate Ethics committee, or the Justice Department were to do some serious digging into her records, the results might require more than a mere reimbursement check.

Will this tip what was already looking like a dead heat between Landrieu and Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy into a likely GOP pickup? It’s hard to say.

Landrieu may be a Democrat in a state that votes Republican in presidential elections but she is a formidable politician. As I noted back in April, her strong constituent service and expertise in bringing home federal dollars to Louisiana has given her more than a fighting chance and even the neutrality, if not support, of some local Republican officials. Her family name is a popular brand in the state stemming from the ability of her father Moon, to manage to be that rare Louisiana Democrat who didn’t wind up in jail at some point during his career. Though there were plenty of questions raised about corruption involved in the building of New Orleans’ Superdome and other projects built while he was mayor, the former congressman, secretary of Housing and Urban Development and federal judge was never charged or convicted of anything. The same is true of Landrieu’s brother Mitch, the current mayor of the Big Easy.

But an even bigger edge for her is that the culture of politics in the state is such that ethical violations are rarely seen as fatal to the future of an officeholder the way they are in other, less easygoing places. To take just the most recent example, David Vitter, Landrieu’s Republican colleague in the Senate, survived his involvement in a prostitution scandal and may well succeed Bobby Jindal as governor of Louisiana in 2015. The list of Louisiana politicians who served jail time, let alone those who labored under ethical clouds, in the last century is too long to include in this piece. Suffice it to say that in the context of that state’s politics, looting the public treasury to pay for a campaign doesn’t exactly make Landrieu an outlier.

Nevertheless, the timing of the revelations isn’t going to help her just at a time when polls recently showed Cassidy to have finally caught and passed the incumbent, albeit by a statistically insignificant one percentage point margin.

Her difficulties are also significant because of all the endangered red state Democrats Landrieu seemed to be the one most likely to survive a tough challenge. If this race starts slipping away from her, then the chances of the Democrats holding the Senate will rest on Kay Hagen in North Carolina and Mark Pryor in Arkansas. Both are currently trailing their GOP opponents with the race to hold another Democratic seat in Iowa also starting to look like an uphill slog.

It won’t take much to tip any one of these elections from one party to the other. Which means that even in ethically challenged Louisiana, Landrieu’s using taxpayer dollars to fund her electioneering might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for a Democratic Party that needed its Senate candidates to run perfect campaigns to have a chance to keep control of one house of Congress this fall.

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Who Buys Votes? Incumbents, Not the Rich

The furor over the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission handed down yesterday revolves, as I wrote earlier, around the problems liberals have with the First Amendment’s protections of political speech. But what liberals claim they are seeking to protect is the integrity of our democratic process from those seeking to buy the votes or the influence of public officials. Given the stringent rules that exist to limit the behavior of officeholders, the line between making your voice heard and a corrupt quid pro quo can be hazy at times, but it is still there. Yet what often goes unnoticed or is, in fact, tolerated, is a different sort of corruption that is far more common than millionaires purchasing members of Congress. As Byron York wrote yesterday in the Washington Examiner, the ability of incumbent politicians to raid the public treasury for expenditures to buy the votes of certain constituencies is not only legal, it is the most decisive form of campaign finance available.

York went to Louisiana to report on the uphill race of Senator Mary Landrieu, an ObamaCare supporting Democrat seeking reelection in an increasingly deep red state. Polls show her in a dead heat against likely Republican opponent Rep. Bill Cassidy. But, as York found out, a lot of people whom one would think would be working to defeat Landrieu—including at least one local GOP official—are backing her. Why? Because Landrieu, who is seeking a fourth term in the Senate, has been lavishing some of New Orleans’ white suburbs—whose swing voters will probably decide the election—with a deluge of federal money, including a loan forgiveness provision inserted into a Homeland Security Appropriations bill, and every manner of post-Hurricane Katrina disaster funding known to the federal government.

While the ability of incumbents to use earmarks to feather their own political nests was supposedly banned by new rules, it appears Landrieu and most of her colleagues are undaunted by the regulations that were supposed to make it harder for members of the House and Senate to selectively fund favored constituencies while portraying themselves as hard-working servants of the people. As York makes clear, Mary Landrieu is buying more votes in Louisiana with taxpayer money than any Republican with access to the checkbooks of the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson ever could.

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The furor over the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission handed down yesterday revolves, as I wrote earlier, around the problems liberals have with the First Amendment’s protections of political speech. But what liberals claim they are seeking to protect is the integrity of our democratic process from those seeking to buy the votes or the influence of public officials. Given the stringent rules that exist to limit the behavior of officeholders, the line between making your voice heard and a corrupt quid pro quo can be hazy at times, but it is still there. Yet what often goes unnoticed or is, in fact, tolerated, is a different sort of corruption that is far more common than millionaires purchasing members of Congress. As Byron York wrote yesterday in the Washington Examiner, the ability of incumbent politicians to raid the public treasury for expenditures to buy the votes of certain constituencies is not only legal, it is the most decisive form of campaign finance available.

York went to Louisiana to report on the uphill race of Senator Mary Landrieu, an ObamaCare supporting Democrat seeking reelection in an increasingly deep red state. Polls show her in a dead heat against likely Republican opponent Rep. Bill Cassidy. But, as York found out, a lot of people whom one would think would be working to defeat Landrieu—including at least one local GOP official—are backing her. Why? Because Landrieu, who is seeking a fourth term in the Senate, has been lavishing some of New Orleans’ white suburbs—whose swing voters will probably decide the election—with a deluge of federal money, including a loan forgiveness provision inserted into a Homeland Security Appropriations bill, and every manner of post-Hurricane Katrina disaster funding known to the federal government.

While the ability of incumbents to use earmarks to feather their own political nests was supposedly banned by new rules, it appears Landrieu and most of her colleagues are undaunted by the regulations that were supposed to make it harder for members of the House and Senate to selectively fund favored constituencies while portraying themselves as hard-working servants of the people. As York makes clear, Mary Landrieu is buying more votes in Louisiana with taxpayer money than any Republican with access to the checkbooks of the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson ever could.

Political machines have always thrived at what might euphemistically be called “constituent service” since the earliest days of the republic. The men who ran Tammany Hall were able to dominate New York politics and loot the city’s coffers with impunity for more than a century because they were always willing to give a little of the money in their control back to loyal voters for minimal services or charity while they kept most of it for themselves. The same applied to every other political machine in the country. But while we think of legendary thieves like Tammany’s George Washington Plunkett as in no way comparable to many of those who serve in our government, his concept of “honest graft” has more in common with the way Landrieu and other contemporary politicians play fast and loose with the rules than most of us would like to admit.

Like Plunkitt, Landrieu, who is part of a political dynasty in Louisiana, views the federal budget as a piñata waiting to be broken open for her benefit. The ability of senators and members of the House to lavish money on people they want to curry favor with—and deny it to those they don’t care about—remains the biggest ethical dilemma facing the nation.

You can call that constituent service, but after the excesses of the last decade in which both parties plundered the federal treasury and created our massive budget/entitlement crisis, Congress was supposed to have turned the page and adopted a more fiscally sound approach to governance. Landrieu’s stands on the issues, especially on ObamaCare, have left her out of step with the views of most Louisianans. But York’s reporting leads him to believe that her ability to manipulate allocations and use taxpayer dollars to buy the votes of Louisianans is enough to make the difference between winning and losing in November.

Liberals can complain all they want about the efforts of large donors to support conservative causes and candidates, but neither the Kochs nor Adelson can boast of the kind of efficient vote buying that Landrieu is practicing on the banks of the Mississippi. Even more to the point, while those billionaires are trying to influence elections with their own money, pork-barrel politicians like Landrieu are doing it with yours.

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