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We're satisfied if they're honest, who cares if they're good?

August 03, 2008

Nothing in this column should be construed to disparage the Viking gas grill corporation, which makes a truly fine product. The 150,000 BTUs, infrared rotisserie motor, heavy duty porcelain-coated cooking grates and complete double-walled stainless steel construction all add up to one fine product.

But still. If someone in Congress is going to sell out, you kind of like to think it's going to be for more than an outdoor-cooking appliance.

And to be fair, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who was indicted this week for secretly taking gifts, did allegedly receive something along the lines of $250,000 in home remodeling too, from an oil/construction company. It's said that he got a nice, wrap-around deck as part of the deal, so I feel a little better about that.

Mark Twain, in noting that legislatures were filled with men who "don't know the Constitution from the Lord's Prayer," did pay them the compliment that "I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world."

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But more often than not, it is amazing that through history lawmakers can be bought for so little. In the Credit Mobilier scandal, members of the Union Pacific railroad contracted with themselves to build the line, and then charged themselves (charges passed on to the government) twice the actual cost of construction and pocketed the difference. Congress was not inclined to ask questions, because members had been sold cheap shares of Credit Mobilier stock. While the railroad men were reaping $30 million, one member of Congress, by way of example, profited by a mere $1,700.

Certainly, shady deals in government are nothing new. But lately, every time you hear the news it seems to include some revelation of political wrongdoing - and in quarters from which you would never expect.

The shenanigans in Maryland alone is enough to make you wince. I'd always considered state Sen. Ulysses Currie one of the noblest members of the legislature, but it's alleged he was paid $200,000 over five years from Shoppers Food Warehouse, and in exchange Currie would go to bat for the company when it needed state assistance - a job he did not report on state ethics forms.

In Baltimore, the Sun reported that a development team that included a contractor with close ties to Mayor Sheila Dixon was awarded a $200 million urban renewal project over the recommendation of an independent city panel that favored another firm.

Former state Sen. Thomas Bromwell recently reported to prison after pleading guilty to a federal bribery charge for steering contracts to a favored construction company.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett failed to report $1 million in property sales on federal disclosure forms, then, tar-baby style, gave the story legs by coming out with all manner of bizarre explanations for the error.

And two Western Maryland lawmakers, David Brinkley and Bob McKee, have basically gone into hiding after embarrassing personal transgressions.

In all, it's enough to make you wonder whether there is anyone decent serving in politics - if the lawmakers who have not been jailed, indicted or raided by authorities are just the ones who haven't been caught.

Bad behavior in politics seems to parallel steroids in sports. Time was, you assumed your favorite athlete was clean unless proven otherwise. Now, every great achievement is greeted with the suspicion that the performance may have been chemically assisted. Baseball, bicycle racing, track and field - finding the clean ones is not an easy chore. And football won't be far behind. As George Will said, those linemen didn't get to be that size "by eating cheeseburgers."

Just as you may not want to become too emotionally attached to an athlete for fear that things will turn out poorly, it's hard to put your chips on a lawmaker for fear he or she will turn out to be either crooked, "legally corrupt" (in the sense of being beholden to campaign contributors) or of so little influence that they have no power worth buying.

That's a bad place to be, and I wonder of the politicians who succumb to corruption are aware that they are not only selling out their people, they are selling out their profession.

Many honest, hard-working public servants who have been elected to office must feel the sting even more than we do. As the incidents of malfeasance pile up, so does the perception that, once taking the reins of power, lawmakers immediately lose their concept of the difference between right and wrong. That's hardly fair to the good ones.

But the greater problem with corruption is this: It lowers the bar. All of a sudden, just being honest is "good enough." It doesn't matter if you're a dolt - if you are an honest dolt you are qualified to serve.

Viewing the transfer of power from Richard Nixon to Gerald Ford, an unkind observer tartly remarked that he would "rather have a president who's a little bit crooked than one who's a little bit stupid."

In a perfect world, or even just a reasonable world, that would be a choice we shouldn't have to make.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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