What in the world is going on in the U.S. Senate?
On Monday, August 27, news services broke the story that Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, pleaded guilty in early August to lewd conduct in an airport restroom. According to the arresting officer, on June 11, Craig stood in front of the officer's stall and "fidget[ed]" with his fingers. He then took the stall next to the officer, tapped his right foot, signaling that he was interested in lewd conduct, and blocked the front view of his stall using his roller suitcase. He then edged his foot into the officer's stall and touched the officer's foot. After Craig signaled yet again that he wanted to engage in lewd conduct by swiping his fingers beneath the stall divider, the officer promptly arrested him.
Craig pleaded guilty to charges of lewd conduct on August 8. This week, Craig denied the charges. "At the time of this incident, I complained to the police that they were misconstruing my actions," Craig stated. "I was not involved in any inappropriate conduct."
Right. And neither was George Michael.
Craig is hardly the only member of the Senate with a propensity for dropping his pants at inopportune moments. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., admitted earlier this year that his phone number was on the list of a D.C. prostitution service. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., even leaving aside the Chappaquiddick incident, is famously promiscuous -- so much so that he once dubbed himself "Tyrannosaurus Sex" and joked that his nickname was the "floating screw." Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, has allegedly sexually harassed or abused at least 10 women. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., reportedly engaged in a sexual affair with an engaged lobbyist, Ron Dotzauer, then gave him a personal loan to help him with his subsequent divorce and threw cash his way.
The simple explanation for the Senate's corruption infection would be a standby aphorism: "power corrupts." But that's too easy. Our Founding Fathers recognized that a body of glory-seeking power players would take advantage of their situation. To that end, they strictly circumscribed the power of the Senate and placed senators under the control of their state legislatures.
Today, however, those controls have been jettisoned. Senators are directly elected, meaning they must find some payoff for voters. That payoff comes in the form of earmarking. As long as the payoffs keep coming, voters keep voting.
Larry Craig will almost certainly resign his Senate seat. But Craig is a symptom of a deeper problem plaguing our politics. Until voters insist on honesty rather than payoffs, corruption will remain endemic to the halls of power.