It takes a lot to catch the not-so-watchful eye of the Capitol ethics police. Members of Congress monitor their own ethics, which works about as well as you might expect. The Federal Election Commission regulates campaign finance, but it's as gridlocked as Congress, which seems to suit both major parties just fine. Reporters are the unofficial cops, but to the Capitol press corps, most congressmen are small potatoes and ethics cases almost always end with a slap on the wrist: a small fine, a scolding letter, a promise to behave.
So what does it take for an ethical violation to really take hold? Well, if all else fails, you can paint your office red.
That's what Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Illinois, did. He painted his office a deep crimson actually, and then added period sconces, arrangements of pheasant feathers and various other gimcracks all meant to resemble, get this, the Red Room of PBS's "Downton Abbey." After a Washington Post reporter came calling last month and happened on the opulent furnishings -- paid for, initially, out of Schock's official expense account -- the congressman soon faced an onslaught of questions about his spending habits. Now he's resigning.
It's usually ethics-plus-something else -- often sex -- that makes a politician a rich target. Former Sen. John Ensign, R, the movie-star-handsome member from Nevada, resigned after he had an affair with a staff member's wife then tried to make up for it by helping the staffer in his new career as a lobbyist. Ensign even had his wealthy parents send the couple a check. Former Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, infamous for being caught in a sex-sting operation in an airport restroom, tried to fight the charges by spending $200,000 in legal fees out of his campaign treasury, which he was then ordered to pay back. Before that was Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-California, who kept track of his bribes on the back of a napkin, sold his house at an inflated price to a defense contractor and lived on a yacht.
The "plus" for Schock wasn't sex but a crush on Edwardian decor. Members of Congress are entitled to desks, filing cabinets and a paint job in hues ranging from beige to pale blue. Anything more is supposed to come out of their own pockets, which is where Schock went wrong. He paid back the $40,000 it cost for the Red Room decor, but not before other problems came to light. A ride in a private plane was listed as a software purchase. Other flights, hotels and dinners were charged to his campaign committee. Then came reports that Schock sold his house to a donor at an above-market price and got reimbursed for driving 170,000 miles in a car that only had 80,000 miles on it.
Schock was known for living large upon his arrival in Congress in 2009. Always tan, always ready and rarely rested, Schock jetted around the globe like a Kardashian. There he was on the cover of Men's Health magazine, rippling abs exposed. There he was flying to a Chicago Bears game, doing the tango in Argentina, surfing in Hawaii. As befits a millennial, all was beamed around the Internet. And he did it all while representing Peoria, Illinois, a metaphor for Midwestern, small-town conservative values.
If it hadn't been for Schock's foray into the Edwardian era, though, it's unlikely we ever would have learned more. No one in Congress likes serving on the ethics committees judging their colleagues, and most of what they do is kept secret. Members pick up on ethics the way teenagers pick up on sex, by word of mouth.
"There's little formal schooling in what's ethical and what's not," says Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign-finance watchdog. "Members model their behavior on what they hear in the gym and cloakroom. 'If it works for him, it will work for me.' "
Which is presumably what Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, was thinking. He's expected to face federal corruption charges stemming from his relationship to Salomon Melgen, a Florida doctor whom Menendez has repeatedly gone to bat for in Congress. As it happens, Melgen is one of Menendez's most generous donors and has let the senator use his private plane for personal vacations to the Dominican Republic. Menendez's predecessor, Robert Torricelli, was formally admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting generous loans and gifts from a donor, including "bronze statues (eagle and bronco buster) for display in your Senate office."
It goes to show you never know what that "plus" element will be. A lot passes by, and then one day someone notices your interior decor is a little too elegant, and you think you could do a turn as Lord Grantham better than Hugh Bonneville, and people start asking uncomfortable questions.
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Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.