Article — From the March 2008 issue

Beltway Bacchanal

Congress lives high on the contributor’s dime

Try to list the stakes at play in the congressional elections this fall, and one might settle on health care, taxes, immigration, Iraq. Seldom considered, though, is an issue of more direct importance to the members of Congress themselves: Which party will get to live more lushly in the nation’s capital, where those who control the levers of legislation also command the most and best perks? Washington by and large is a restrained, workaday sort of town, its residents not known for high living; but a significant exception can always be found among the denizens of Capitol Hill, and especially among the legislators who command a majority there. For this convivial crew and its hangers-on, the most pressing matter to be decided on Election Day is, as ever, whether they can hold on to that majority and all its accompanying boons.

The most lavish benefit of winning a congressional campaign is, ironically enough, the right to keep on campaigning—and therefore to keep raising and spending donor money. Uninformed citizens may still think of “campaigns” as discrete events, waged mostly in home districts and just before election time. In fact, political fund-raising is now a nonstop activity, with candidates chasing dollars far outside the borders of their home states and districts. And although the Federal Election Commission (FEC) is supposed to monitor the use of this money, it has interpreted the relevant rules in a highly flexible fashion. Politicians have two primary vehicles with which to raise and spend money, the first being their campaign treasuries, which according to ethics rules must be kept “separate from [the member’s] personal funds” and can be used only for “bona fide campaign or political purposes.” But in practice the FEC has permitted virtually any expenditure, from a night on the town to a resort stay with big contributors, to be drawn from these funds. (Last October, in a rare act of censure, the FEC cited New York Demo-cratic Congressman Gregory Meeks for using $6,230 to pay for a personal trainer, whose services initially had been justified by his office as necessary to alleviate stress brought on by “the candidate’s duties.”) Spending from the second vehicle—the Leadership PAC—is less restrictive still, since it is not even subject to the nominal “personal use” prohibition that applies to campaign treasuries. Furthermore, individual contribution limits to Leadership PACs are $5,000 per year, versus $2,300 per election for political campaigns. Not surprisingly, most senators and more than a third of House members now run Leadership PACs, which were quite rare as recently as a decade ago. During the 2006 election cycle, fund-raising by Leadership PACs exceeded $160 million.

Most of the political spending by members of Congress is no doubt legitimate, at least under existing rules, because it is in fact connected (if often tenuously) to winning reelection. But as the “campaign” has lost all temporal and spatial boundaries, and the FEC has largely turned a blind eye, misuse of donor money has become positively shameless. Those who hold safe seats spend just as freely as those in highly competitive districts, if not more so, and these allegedly campaign-related expenditures continue year-round. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (which helpfully provided much of the data for this article), at least eight House members spent more than $10,000 in campaign funds on food, travel, and fund-raising in the eight weeks between Election Day 2006 and New Year’s Eve—not exactly a peak campaigning period. These included Democrat John Murtha and Republican Don Young, whose respective margins of victory were 22 and 17 percent. Three of the other big spenders, interestingly enough, were Republicans who lost their seats in the 2006 midterm vote; in their dwindling days of public service, they apparently decided to treat themselves well on the way out.

Inside Washington itself, such casual appropriation of political contributions bankrolls much of the city’s social life. Some of the spending on food and drink is related to fund-raising events, but a notable portion is for private restaurant meals—sometimes classified in disclosure forms under the category of “political meetings.” These “meetings” are held at a circuit of nightspots that include the two political parties’ clubs—the semiprivate National Democratic Club and, for Republicans, the strictly cloistered Capitol Hill Club—and otherwise range from such old standbys as Morton’s (where, in the 1980s, the corrupt House boss Dan Rostenkowski held court so frequently that a bronze plaque near the bar read “Rosty’s Rotunda”) to chic eateries like Bistro Bis and the Sonoma Wine Bar. Most Americans could not afford to eat at any of these restaurants. The price of an appetizer alone—like the $15.95 lobster mac-and-cheese at the Oceanaire or the $18 crabmeat, lobster, and shrimp cocktail at the Capitol Hill Club (why settle for one when you can have all three?) —tends to be daunting. The à la carte entrées begin at the low end with items like the stuffed rabbit loin at Bistro Bis ($29.50), move up to the signature porterhouse at the Capital Grille ($41) or the double-cut prime rib at Morton’s ($43), and for the truly memorable occasion climb to $20 per ounce (5-ounce minimum) for the Kobe strip steak at Charlie Palmer’s. With drinks, dessert, and a tip, a meal for two can easily run into the hundreds of dollars.

In the land of the permanent campaign, though, these are the everyday haunts of our elected leaders. Between 2005 and late 2007, at just ten of Washington’s priciest restaurants, House members collectively spent $5.4 million of their campaign money. (Note that this does not even include senators, who typically spend even more than their colleagues in the lower chamber; but because senators are not required to file disclosure forms electronically, categorizing their expenses with any specificity is a nearly impossible task.)

Last year, in the aftermath of scandals involving Jack Abramoff and Randy “Duke” Cunningham, among others, Congress passed an ethics bill that barred lobbyists from directly buying members food and drinks, a step that was hailed as imposing a barrier between lawmakers and special interests. But political donations continue to underwrite legislators’ nightly entertainment in Washington—helping to maintain the hermetic Beltway bubble in which lawmakers fraternize with precisely those people from whom ethics laws, and the demands of good governance, aim to separate them.

To see just how well one can live while in the public employ, stand near the Capitol South metro station around 6:30 p.m. on those weeknights when Congress is in session. One can witness a steady stream of members, staffers, and their acquaintances, in groups of twos, threes, and fours, fanning out across the city. The stream soon divides, with some branches flowing toward such nearby destinations as the Capitol Hill Club or the cavernous Charlie Palmer steakhouse. Among the other popular options are the Caucus Room, whose owners include Democratic lobbyist Tommy Boggs and former Republican National Committee chairman and current Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour; and Sam & Harry’s, a beef shrine downtown.

During the period of G.O.P. rule, the Capital Grille, which, at Pennsylvania Avenue and Sixth Street, sits in the reflected glow of the Capitol dome, was perhaps the most popular hangout in town for Republican insiders. The restaurant opened here in 1994, the year that Newt Gingrich led the G.O.P. takeover of Congress, and on its opening night handed out $100,000 in free food and drink to legislators. “It might as well be part of the Capitol complex,” The Hill remarked in 2003, “like the Russell Senate Office Building or the Rayburn House Office Building, since you’re likely to run into almost as many members of Congress and staffers at the Capital Grille as you do on Capitol Hill.” Business has reportedly dropped off now that Democrats are back in charge, but it remains one of the best spots in town to hobnob with members of Congress and their entourages.

When I visited the Capital Grille one night last fall, three SUVs were idling out front for lawmakers who were finishing up inside. As I walked toward the revolving front door, Representative Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.), head of the House Ways and Means Committee, was walking out. A man just in front of me—likely a lobbyist, given his power suit, leather briefcase, and Bluetooth earpiece—immediately accosted Rangel, furiously shaking his hand, and the two struck up a short but friendly conversation. After Rangel stepped into his waiting car (license plate nyrep15), the man turned to me, eyes afire, and exclaimed, “He’s da man!”

Inside, just past a window display of aged beef hanging like holy relics, the first thing one sees is a wall of wine lockers, their owners’ names engraved on brass plaques. Defense contractor Brent Wilkes, who was convicted of bribing former Representative Duke Cunningham, used to have a locker here, as did businessman Mitchell Wade, who pleaded guilty to similar charges. Former lobbyists whose names grace lockers include Jeffrey Shockey, a longtime aide to Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis, as well as the late Ann Eppard, who pleaded guilty in 1999 to taking payoffs while working for former Pennsylvania Republican Bud Shuster, a longtime powerhouse on the House Transportation Committee. (Her locker is kept in memoriam.)

In the bar just beyond, an assortment of politicos can inevitably be found mingling about. On one night in October, I saw Terry Nelson, who until the summer had served as John McCain’s presidential-campaign manager, strolling through toward the dining room; William Pickle, the recently retired Senate sergeant at arms, moving from stool to stool, chatting with acquaintances; and a dapper Arthur Wu, the Republican staff director of the House Veterans’ Affairs oversight and investigations subcommittee, who stood at center stage with a big smile and glass in hand. Senator Norm Coleman (R., Minn.), who had dropped by after a fund-raiser held in his honor earlier in the evening at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce town house, sipped from a drink while chatting with Matthew Brooks, head of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

On another night, Senator Ben Nelson (D., Neb.) came into the bar from the dining room and struck up a conversation with two men while several suitors lined up to wait their turn. Also on hand was Edwina Rogers, a lobbyist and the wife of Republican power broker Ed Rogers, who along with a female friend was enjoying a night on the town whose itinerary still included a stop at Georgetown’s Cafe Milano. Rogers, whose freewheeling style seemed hard to square with her role as a conservative strategist and former Bush White House aide at the National Economic Council, was immersed in conversation with someone whom she identified to me, moments later, as an important committee staffer. The topic wasn’t hard to discern.

“You need to make Rick an offer of at least three times what he’s making now,” the man told Rogers.

“Let’s get together Thursday at Charlie Palmer’s,” Rogers replied with a laugh. “And bring Rick.”

I shared drinks with several lobbyists who meet regularly at the Grille. “They decided to criminalize everything,” one said, referring to the new ban on lobbyists buying meals for lawmakers. “My reaction is, ‘Have a good life.’ It’s not going to hurt me, I already know people, but it’s going to make it hard for those who are new [at lobbying] and are trying to build personal relationships.”

One of our tablemates was similarly untroubled. “So far, it’s saved me a lot of money,” he said. “But I’m not sure what’s going to happen in the long run. When they lowered the speed limit to 55, everyone paid attention for six months. Then they started driving 70 again.”

As originally envisioned by the founders of the American republic, serving in Congress was to be strictly a part-time job. Early officeholders, typically farmers and businessmen, came to Washington for only a few weeks to deal with national affairs and then returned home. Too much time in the capital, it was thought, would diminish the bond between representatives and their constituents. “As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that [Congress] should have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people,” Federalist #52 opined.

It is perhaps too easy to romanticize this era of “citizen legislators,” who of course generally came from, and represented the interests of, the economic elite. And yet holding office was then genuinely seen as a public service rather than a career, let alone a path to riches. Today’s lawmakers complain bitterly about the rigors of the job, including the incessant fund-raising, but they overwhelmingly opt to seek term after term and in recent decades have won reelection at a rate of roughly 90 percent, in part because both parties have gerrymandered congressional districts so that few incumbents are dislodged.

Why do they so dearly want to stay? The pay is very good but not outlandish: at $169,300 per year, a member of Congress earns less than what he or she could likely command in the private sector.[1] More generous, arguably, is the retirement plan, which (for members serving at least five years) is guaranteed for life, at a payout that the National Taxpayers Union estimates to be at least twice what a similarly salaried corporate executive would get upon retirement. Another factor, no doubt, is the entourage that tends to members’ needs. As recently as World War II, lawmakers got by with a minimal staff, but today each congressman typically has a score of young, eager aides who do everything from managing his schedule to driving him around town. Only the nation’s most elite CEOs can afford to have so many talented minions at their beck and call around the clock. But among the greatest perks of congressional service today is the campaign dole, which provides legislators with potentially limitless funds to lavish on associates, or on themselves. One cannot flip through disclosure reports of the most powerful members of Congress without finding vast sums being dispensed for purposes that hardly seem essential to their reelection. Over a recent four-year period, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has used more than $125,000 in political funds to pay for stays at such Las Vegas hotels as the MGM Grand, the Wynn resort, Caesars Palace, and Mandalay Bay. His House counterpart, Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland, has displayed similarly pricey tastes: during the 2006 election cycle alone, his Leadership PAC doled out $66,146 on hotels, including the InterContinental Hotel in Chicago, the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix, the Breakers in Palm Beach, and the W in Seattle. In the fall of 2005, Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor, now the G.O.P. chief deputy whip, charged his political funds more than $42,000 for stays at the Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows, as well as $1,224 for a tour of the Warner Bros. studios.

[1] Though of course a seat in Congress virtually guarantees members a high-paying job in the private sector upon retirement.

Such eye-opening use of donor money is by no means confined to party leaders. Consider the case of Representative James McCrery (R., La.), who has held no post in the Republican leadership and whose national profile is fairly limited. McCrery’s campaign took in $3.3 million between 2005 and 2007, a staggering amount given that his seat is utterly secure; he crushed his most recent Democratic opponent, who spent all of $7,000, by some 40 percentage points. McCrery’s Leadership PAC—which is named, without apparent irony, the Committee for the Preservation of Capitalism—raised another $2.3 million during the same period. McCrery recently announced that he would not seek reelection this fall, a choice that analysts described as a serious blow to the G.O.P.’s financial prospects for the 2008 election.

[2] Numerous lawmakers view their political funds as job programs for friends and family members, thus offering yet another means of enhancing their incomes and lifestyles. The wife and daughter of former House Majority Leader Tom Delay were paid several hundred thousand dollars to serve as his PAC's fund-raising and political consultants. The wife of Representative John Doolittle (R. , Calif.) took a 15 percent cut of all the money she brought in for his PAC, and Senator Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) pays her own son's firm $72,000 annually to run hers. But no one can top Representative David Scott (D. , Ga.) , who since winning office in 2002 has paid, from political funds, more than $600 ,000 to his wife, his two daughters, his son-in-law, and an advertising firm he owns. "The payments to hisfamily and company became larger and more frequent in 2003, around the same time Rep. Scott was falling behind on his federal income taxes and property taxes, " reports the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "At the same time the Scotts were failing to pay their taxes, they increased their stock holdings from $5,000 to about $67,000 and bought a $702, 000 row house in Washington, D.C."

By congressional standards, McCrery is poor: his assets, as listed on disclosure forms, are estimated at between $25,000 and $200,000, ranking him in the bottom fifth of his peers. Yet life in Congress has been good for McCrery, as well as for his friends, family, and associates. In 2004 his wife, Johnette, until then an assistant professor at Louisiana State University—Shreveport, was named a vice president at the Washington office of Ketchum, one of the world’s largest P.R. firms. A number of his staffers have gone on to become lobbyists or consultants, and the wife of one former aide gets paid to run the Committee for the Preservation of Capitalism.[2]

McCrery has cut a broad gastronomical swath through Washington, using political funds to dine out frequently at twenty-five different restaurants since 2005. Although his favorite spot seems to be the Capitol Hill Club (twenty-eight visits and events, totaling more than $59,000), the congressman has spread his wealth around town, spending thousands of dollars from his political funds at Bistro Bis and the Capital Grille, as well as at Johnny’s Half Shell, a seafood spot near Union Station, and Acadiana, whose menu reflects “the bounty of Louisiana, in the finest of seafood and premium meats.” When in his home district, McCrery regularly drops by the Southern Trace Country Club (twelve visits in three years, at combined costs to his political funds of some $40,000) and the Shreveport Club (seven visits, $2,200).

For travel, McCrery appears to enjoy the Napa Valley, having charged his political funds tens of thousands of dollars for fund-raising trips there in the past three years. His fall 2007 expenses at Sonoma’s Benziger Family Winery, which “produces Sonoma cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay wines with a strong sense of place,” set back his Leadership PAC $13,000. The congressman also enjoys a good party. McCrery sits on the executive committee of the

Mystick Krewe of Louisianians Inc., a group of “displaced Louisianians living in our nation’s capital.” In 2005, his campaign paid $7,725 to the group for a Mardi Gras–themed party.

McCrery’s passions include golfing—several years ago, he appeared on Golf Digest’s list of the top 200 players among members of Congress, White House officials, Supreme Court justices, and lobbyists—and he frequently can be found on the links, courtesy of his political funds. McCrery spent $1,592 in December of 2005 at the Calusa Pines Golf Club and another $994 the following month at the Olde Florida Golf Club, both in balmy Naples, Florida. He frequently holds his fund-raising events at golf clubs, where donors have given him the money to pay for yet more golfing.[3] He spent $7,488 at the Talking Stick in Scottsdale, Arizona (winner of the Golden Nugget Award for Best Recreational Facility), and $32,036 at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort off the South Carolina coast (named No. 1 golf resort in America by Travel + Leisure Golf magazine and No. 2 tennis resort by Tennis magazine).

[3] Last year's much-lauded congressional-ethics bill specified that members of Congress can no longer travel on a lobbyist's dime. Now lawmakers host and sponsor vacation-style fund-raisers that lobbyists and others pay for through their donations.

He and donors traveled farther south for an affair McCrery hosted at the Rio Mar Beach Resort and Spa in Puerto Rico, which, says its website, “lies between a magnificent palm-lined beach and lush mountains” and boasts “an award-winning staff at your beck and call.” The resort offers—naturally—two championship golf courses, as well as eleven tennis courts, two oceanfront swimming pools, and “oceanfront meditation areas.” Still another golfing affair—a single-event expense record for McCrery, costing his Leadership PAC nearly $52,000—was held at the Lansdowne Resort in Virginia’s Hunt Country.

McCrery’s non-travel-related payments of note include an $88,512 bonus to his fund-raising consultant last year, $10,000 in checks to the Tom DeLay Legal Expense Trust, more than $10,000 for gifts (much of it spent at the Tiny Jewel Box in Washington), $3,000 labeled only as petty cash, $1,427 at the Marble Slab Creamery, and $1,102 more at the Cake House. There is seemingly nothing that McCrery has not seen fit to charge to his political funds, including babysitting for his children: a bill of $300 was paid to one Katie Raffaelli, the daughter of John Raffaelli, a lobbyist and campaign donor to the congressman.

I called McCrery and asked whether he thought some of his expenditures might have been a bit extravagant—for example, the donor event in Puerto Rico. McCrery explained that early in his career, he had attended many fund-raisers, and had developed a keen sense of what made for a memorable affair. “I tried to emulate those events that attracted people so that they would want to come back,” he told me. “Yes, we do go to some very nice places, and we like to make sure that people have a good time. . . . So I plead guilty.”

What about expenditures for meals and other non-fund-raising events? I asked. “It’s fairly loose in terms of the use of campaign money,” the congressman replied. “It has to be connected to the campaign, but that can be any number of things.” For example, McCrery might pick up the dinner tab for other members of Congress “if I’m talking to them about fund-raising activities, or if I’m trying to get them to come to a campaign event.” At the Capitol Hill Club, some of his expenditures were for what he called “check presentations,” ceremonial events (often including donors) at which the PAC hands out checks to members and candidates. As for babysitting, the congressman said that he had asked the FEC for an opinion about that matter, and he had been assured it was appropriate. “We don’t use it often, but we have occasionally,” he told me, adding that he usually paid $100 “if the person comes in and spends the night.” The 2007 tab for $300 was for babysitting when he and his wife were away for a few days at a Republican retreat—at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa and Marina.

All in all, McCrery has allocated some $650,000 in political funds for food, drinks, catering, and hotels during the past three years. This is a pace of roughly $18,000 a month—and keep in mind that this figure excludes tens of thousands of dollars more in airfare, rental cars, and related travel costs. For Democrats just beginning to enjoy the enhanced perks of majority status and hoping to tighten their grip thereon, McCrery’s story can only serve as election-year inspiration.

Even as the Democrats’ triumph in 2006 has accomplished almost nothing in terms of policy, it has produced a stunning reversal in the parties’ respective finances. As of January, the Democratic Senate and House congressional campaign committees had combined cash on hand of $56 million, almost five times more than their formerly cash-swollen Republican counterparts. At one point last fall, the G.O.P.’s House campaign committee was technically insolvent, with $2.3 million more in debt than in the bank. “Washington is a town that operates on the basis of what people can do for you,” says Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Now that the Democrats control Congress, it’s a lot easier to get people to show up at their fund-raisers. As a donor, you can’t afford to say no.”

In Washington, the Democrats’ political and social resurgence can be witnessed in the revived fortunes of the National Democratic Club, which serves as a semiprivate venue for party lawmakers and elected officials, as well as the lobbyists, consultants, fund-raisers, and others whose livelihood depends on access to them. Monthly fees at the club—located on Ivy Street, a few minutes’ walk from the House and Senate office buildings—are only $25 per month for members of Congress; others pay $80 monthly, on top of a $300 initiation fee.

I stopped by the club on a cold, windy evening last December to meet a party political consultant. It was a jovial spot, to be sure, but surprisingly modest, with pre-Christmas décor reminiscent of a roadside hotel lounge. Thick pillars in the dining room were wrapped in faded red, white, and silver decorations, and a small Christmas tree squatted against a wall. Among the customers were a few members of Congress, including Carolyn McCarthy of New York and Barney Frank and Michael Capuano of Massachusetts, as well as an elderly foursome playing bridge at a corner table. At the bar, Hill staffers, assorted politicos, and a few locals from the neighborhood chatted over drinks and bowls of a low-grade nut mix.

The club was founded by former staffers in the Truman Administration, and for decades it was a de rigueur stop on the local social circuit. In March 1986, when Democrats held a huge majority in the House, a capacity crowd gathered for “a glittering gala” to mark the completion of a major remodeling, the website relates. Eight years later, catastrophe struck when the party lost both chambers for the first time in over forty years. More than 1,000 members promptly resigned from the club, and the smart action drifted a few blocks away to the Republican Party’s more lavish Capitol Hill Club.

As the Republican grip on Washington tightened in the ensuing years, the National Democratic Club was forced to sell its three-story building and then rent back the ground floor for its dwindling operations. Up until recently, the mood here had been desultory, but a renaissance arrived on Election Night 2006, when hundreds of revelers gathered to celebrate the sweeping Democratic victory. “Once again, the place to be is your NDC,” said the club’s first post-election newsletter. General Manager Christine Hilty describes the club as a refuge for Democrats and their supporters. “There’s certainly networking going on, but people come here because it’s a safe place,” she said. “There are no cameras.” Membership has climbed by about 30 percent since the 2006 elections, she estimated, and business is more bustling than at any point in the six years she’s worked there. During the first nine months of 2007, congressional Democrats and party committees used political contributions to pay for $426,431 worth of food and drink at the club. That was an increase of about 70 percent from the same period in 2005, when the Democrats were still in the minority.[4]

[4] And again, this does not include the Senate.

Not only does the majority party have more to spend; it is also more spent upon. Democrats have found themselves newly fashionable on the Washington scene, whether as party guests, as dinner partners, or simply for a coffee or office meeting, especially, of course, with lobbyists. “You’re vying for time and you’re not going to vie for the time of someone who has no power,” one lobbyist explained to me about his post-2006 shift in social priorities. Former Democrats, and those considering retirement, have seen their prospects soar as K Street firms look to enhance their outreach to the new kings of Congress. The Republican-dominated lobby shop of Barbour Griffith & Rogers—founded by Haley Barbour, the Mississippi governor—recently announced that it would begin hiring Democrats. “I’m not going to deny the obvious,” the firm’s chairman, Ed Rogers (Edwina’s husband), told the Washington Post. “The expectations of our clients are such that we have to have a full range of political, policy and business expertise, and in today’s world that includes Democrats.”

The new ethics rules ostensibly prohibit lobbyists from buying members drinks and meals, but it almost certainly will still happen, albeit with a variety of winks and nods. One of the lobbyists I met at the Capital Grille explained a common method of picking up tabs for members in the past. “Let’s say there were four or five members sitting at a table with a couple or three lobbyists,” he said. “The bill might come to $1,500. But when it came time to pay, they [the members] would pay nothing, or throw in a twenty and say, ‘There’s my share.’”

Every so often, public outrage compels lawmakers to make a show of their determination to “clean up” Washington. Congress’s “ethics reform package” passed last year, widely hailed as the toughest ever approved, is at least the fourth enacted since the end of World War II. Over the years, members have tightened the rules about their use of corporate jets, the amount of money they can receive from political donors, and the legality of having private entities pay for their food and travel, among other matters. But largely exempted from the chopping block have been the extraordinary benefits and perquisites available to members, which have grown exponentially and transformed a seat in Congress from a comfortable but relatively modest office into a sort of modern-day lordship.

Last November, the Senate Finance Committee announced that it would be scrutinizing, as part of a probe of tax-exempt organizations, the compensation packages and perks enjoyed by leaders of some of the nation’s top ministries. The committee expressed concern about religious officials granting themselves high salaries, huge travel allowances, private jets, and luxury cars, all paid for by donations to their ministries. “I don’t want to conclude that there’s a problem, but I have an obligation to donors and the taxpayers to find out more,” Senator Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) said at the time the probe was announced. “People who donated should have their money spent as intended.”

Whether or not the ministers are a worthy target of investigation, the fact that a high committee of the U.S. Congress would be in charge of such an inquiry is, to put it mildly, ironic. For if there is any single group in America that lives high on funds donated for other purposes, it is our 535 members of Congress. Perhaps they should overlook the motes in the reverends’ eyes until they have considered the beams in their own.

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. His last article for the magazine, “Making Mitt Romney,” appeared in the November 2007 issue.

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