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The Tale of A Campaign Finance Princeling

How well can you understand your middle-class constituents when you spend your time on private jets and golf courses?

March 5, 2015

Another week. Another ethics inquiry. Another congressman lawyers up.

The latest case study comes compliments of Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), he of the Downton Abbey-themed office.

Schock’s travails have all the hallmarks of a juicy TMZ-style political scandal. Nothing all that complex here: five star hotels, private planes, pheasant feathers, and an interior décor firm named Euro Trash (not kidding). Spending a little too lavishly, sometimes using tax dollars for private jets. Not filing reports or disclosing gifts. Jon Stewart is licking his lips.

In the end Schock is most likely heading for an unpleasant ethics investigation, high attorney fees, a fine, a mea culpa, and then…reelection?

One outlier allegation that might trip him up: Blue Nation Review has reported that he sold his house at above market value to a notable campaign donor. That’s the kind of transaction that could result in a criminal investigation, but Schock has vigorously denied the accusation.

The other stuff—the cocktails at Buckingham Palace, the massages, the Katy Perry concert—not much of a chance to deny that. They were all breathlessly showboated on Schock’s Instagram account or prosaically reported to the Federal Election Commission.

I’ll straight up admit to enjoying this scandal, the way I like clicking on the Daily Mail every once in a while. (OK, every day). I like it the way I like a good murder mystery. There’s a clear narrative and moral order to a murder mystery by Agatha Christie. Even the master of muddy corruption and depraved violence, James Ellroy, provides his readers with a sense that a measure of order has been restored at the end of his books.

And that’s what a good showboat political scandal does. Like a daytime soap opera, predictable themes are teased out. In Schock’s case the theme is more profligacy than corruption (so far), more sloppiness than perfidy. We, the consumers of this scandal, can tsk-tsk at him and then feel a satisfying thump of return to normal order after he, inevitably, does his penance and pays his fine.

A scandal like this rises or falls on the salacious details. And too often they center on the particulars (the hotel rooms at the Four Seasons) or the rules (all gifts greater than $50 are barred unless from a personal friend) rather than, say, pausing to note how Schock’s behavior reveals so much about the true workings of politics today.

When his constituents were interviewed about the revelations by an Associated Press reporter, they seemed indifferent. It’s "much ado about nothing," a local cattle farmer said. "We want to feed people, make a living," he added. "He's not stupid, he listens to us."

Schock himself professed to be the same guy his constituents have always known. "My constituents know me and they know my character," he told reporters.

I don’t think so. Schock has burrowed himself very, very deeply into the monied echo chamber. In attempting to explain his high travel expenses and lavish lifestyle, his spokesman gave away the real game to Politico:

Last year alone he was one of the top five fundraisers for the party in the House. Rep. Schock raised $2 million personally for the [National Republican Congressional Committee] last year, $15.2 million for the March Dinner [which he chaired] and gave out half a million from his leadership PAC to other Members and Congressional candidates, obviously to raise that amount of money, he must spend resources as well and incur overhead costs. These trips are for fundraising events around the country or campaigning for other candidates. For example, in the month of October, he went to 40 different congressional districts.

That’s it. Schock eats, breathes, and sleeps in the cocooned world of a campaign finance princeling. He has managed to get himself about as far away from the average concerns and needs of his central Illinois constituents as is possible.

The mean income of one of his constituents is $74,277. That’s how much the congressman spent on one of his two campaign vehicles.

The median value of a house in his district is $134,900. Schock sold his house for $925,000. The median rent for an apartment in the district is $675. Schock spent $40,000 redecorating his approximately 1000-square-foot office.

Meanwhile, more than 50 percent of the female-headed households in his district with children under age 5 live below the poverty line. Their idea of a good weekend might be going to a pizza parlor. Schock, on the other hand, hosts lavish golfing fundraisers where donors get massages, cigar rollers, and monogrammed shirts.

And he has done this all with a taxpayer-funded office and travel budget and while raising money according to our campaign finance laws. Oh sure, it looks like he might have slipped up on some of the paperwork. But a fine will take care of that, probably.

All of this started when a Washington Post Style section reporter rather aimlessly went by congressman’s office to check out the new paint job. And then it all spun out of control from there. It’s part of what makes this scandal so mesmerizing and part of what makes it so depressing. It took a red paint job, some pheasant feathers, and a press secretary’s overreaction to finally get some reporters on the job.

What else is out there?

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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