I am thinking positive thoughts about Maryland’s two Senators. Not only do they do an excellent job representing everyone in Maryland, but they do not take bribes. To compliment legislators for honesty might seem strange, but the recent charges brought against Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), remind us how easy it is for politicians to succumb to the temptations of power. Menendez is accused of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, gold bars, and a luxury car in exchange for using his influence in Washington to aid individuals and the government of Egypt.
The 39-page indictment includes photographs of the fruits of Menendez’s alleged corruption. The pictures are nauseating. Menendez, until last week, was the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In that post, he was privy to sensitive government information and had the power to block the sale of military arms to foreign governments. He also was well known within the State Department and other government agencies.
While legislators cannot order federal agencies to take or withhold actions benefiting an individual or foreign government, any communication from them bears weight. Most legislators understand this and, as a policy, tell any constituent asking for help that “crosses the line” that such intervention is beyond their authority. But nobody polices the communications of senators and representatives. Unless someone blows the whistle, improper actions might not be caught.
Senator Menendez counted on not getting caught. That is curious because less than a year before engaging in the alleged corruption detailed in the indictment, he dodged conviction on another bribery charge after the jury was deadlocked. One would have thought that experience would have taught Menendez that “you can’t get away with it.” Apparently, Menendez did not see his actions, and the size of the bribes he allegedly accepted, as sufficiently blatant to attract attention.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and many others have called on Menendez to resign. The Senator denies the charges and says he is not going anywhere. Even more disturbing is his statement made after calls for his resignation: “It is not lost on me how quickly some are rushing to judge a Latino and push him out of his seat. I am not going anywhere.”
Assuming the facts alleged in the indictment are accurate, Menendez will be leaving the Senate and going to jail. Assuming he is guilty, that will be justice, but that is not the end of the story. More important than holding a legislator accountable for corruption is the damage it does to the public’s confidence in democracy and our representative form of government.
The news of Menendez’s indictment comes as the “real story” in Washington is how a small group of reckless, radical right-wing Republicans have hijacked the weak-in-the-spine Speaker of the House of Representatives in an attempt to shut down the federal government. The unspoken truth in Washington is that the House of Representatives is broken, perhaps permanently. Opinion writers are telling us, “Matt Gaetz (R-FL) is running the House of representatives.” If you don’t know who Gaetz is, take something for your stomach and Google him.
We are also watching another U.S. Senator blocking confirmations of top military appointments in an effort to fight the military’s abortion policies. That Senator is ex-football coach Tommy Tuberville (R-AL). He is undermining the constitutional responsibility of the Senate to confirm appointments and risking the national security of the United States.
The actions of the radical right in the House of Representatives and Tuberville in the Senate coupled with the disgusting corruption allegations involving Menendez, his wife, and several others, paint a sordid picture.
I wonder how much more dysfunction Congress can stand before the public concludes it is time to throw the towel in on the Constitution. That is why the Menendez allegation is so worrying. In Congress these days, there are good people and bad people, but unfortunately the number of bad people is growing.
Maryland has had its share of corrupt politicians and right-wing ideologues. Remember Spiro Agnew, the only vice president to resign from office? And, unfortunately, I worry that the Eastern Shore’s own Andy Harris will be among those Republicans who will do nothing to stop the shutdown of the U.S. government.
Washington needs a good scrubbing. Until that happens, be worried, but also do something about it. Demand honesty and integrity from elected officials. And demand that they do their jobs and not play games that jeopardize national security or domestic tranquility.
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, and other subjects.