"I want to elect someone who looks to securing their financial future beyond their tenure in Washington."
"I want a multi-tasker: My elected representative needs to be able to manage public budgets and use insider information to manage his or her own portfolio at the same time."
"I want to cast my vote for someone always looking out for Number One - him or herself. "
You don't hear campaign testimonials along those lines, yet plenty of elected officials are using their offices as a stepping stone for self-enrichment. Members of Congress and their staff travel an express line from the Capitol to lucrative jobs in the private sector, whether they are officially called "lobbyists" or not (remember, Newt Gingrich was simply a "historian" in his consulting gigs).
Bush's cronies bounced into government long enough to help out the firms they'd work for as soon as they left. That Administration's go-to contractor was Cheney's previous project, Halliburton. And it's not just one side of the aisle: Robert Rubin steered deregulation of an industry into which he leapt head-first as an executive…an industry that profited massively from the new landscape and then from government bailouts.
Even Bill Clinton's speaking fees are a reminder of the post-service payday that may weigh as heavily as one's own public service legacy.
Meanwhile, members of Congress and their families get access to the best single-payer healthcare a government can provide. We hear about the extra-credit perks members take - from Tom DeLay's junkets to the apartments of Charlie Rangel, up for reelection - made all the more astonishing by the fact that many of these folks either enter wealthy already or are ensured a soft landing with a golden parachute. Given all the fully-legal and quasi-legitimate benefits, you'd think they wouldn't have to grab at any more.
Which makes the recent Washington Post revelations both distressing and unsurprising. As Congress worked to stabilize the financial market, they spent just enough time stabilizing their own portfolios - selling, reconfiguring and generally coming out ahead at a time when many of their constituents were about to lose big.
Whether it counts as an illegal act of insider trading, it certainly marks an ethical stain for a political body already disdained with low approval ratings for its unproductive record of governing. And clearly many of our representatives found it abhorrent enough that a law was passed this past year to make such trading based on privileged knowledge illegal.
Some of the lawmakers who approved the Stock Act may have just been closing the barn door after themselves. It's likely that many others were truly concerned by their colleagues' behavior and how it would reflect on all of them. Many of our representatives are trying to serve the public, and their efforts and reputations are badly hurt by those who think they are in a self-serve lane.
We want our elected officials to embody public-minded virtues that make us proud. It's not just an principled hope; we compensate them well enough that it can be a reality. We should pay them well enough that they can resist the self-enriching moonlighting which not only compromise their morals but also our public policy.
But when they are on our dime, they also need to make us Number One - and when they fail to, we shouldn't hesitate to relieve them of their duties. I still believe there are plenty of good people ready to take their place - and while the system may lean toward corruption, I still believe we can find the candidates who want to do right by us.
We don't want representatives who simply follow the law, yet exploit the loopholes; we want those who serve as an ethical example even when the law doesn't explicitly tell them how to behave. Because that behavior is true leadership -- which, more than the ability to multi-task, is the main quality we are seeking among the applicants knocking at our door.