U.S. pundits and pols often lecture other countries for their lapses in democracy, sometimes citing barriers that some candidates may face to get on the ballot. But American politics has its own major barrier, the need to raise lots and lots of money, as Michael Winship notes.
By Michael Winship
We could go on about the inherent contradiction of “Downton Abbey” as the biggest hit on public television that a series about a fading, genteel (and Gentile) British aristocracy and its servants dominates the schedule of a broadcasting service mandated to promote diversity and give a voice to the underrepresented. And sometime soon, we will talk about precisely that and more.
And we could go on at length about the Downton fantasy vs. reality ratio, the series “polishing up history to make the class divide less savage,” as British journalist Polly Toynbee pointed out when the show’s current season began.
“What we never see,” she wrote in The Guardian, “is bedraggled drudges rising in freezing shared attics at 5:30 a.m.; slopping out chamber pots, heaving coal, black-leading grates, hauling cans of hot water with hands already made raw by chilblains and caustic soda. We never dwell on the hardship of scrubbing floors, or scrubbing clothes, or scouring grease; in pre-detergent days, they were up to their elbows all day long.”
But for now, let’s talk instead about Congressman Aaron Schock, Republican from Illinois. You’ve heard about how his interior decorator pal, proprietor of a company called Euro Trash, redecorated Schock’s new Capitol Hill office in high “Downton Abbey” style which is more than somewhat ironic because, as Josh Israel at ThinkProgress pointed out, “Schock has repeatedly voted against federal funding for public broadcasting, voting to defund National Public Radio and for a Paul Ryan budget that zeroed out all funds for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”
But even more important, Schock’s expensive tastes and how he spends money to make money for his party tells a sad story of the state of Congress and campaign fundraising.
It has been three weeks or so since Washington Post reporter Ben Terris stumbled onto Schock’s mini-manor: “Bright red walls. A gold-colored wall sconce with black candles. A Federal-style bull’s-eye mirror with an eagle perched on top.” And that was merely the reception area.
Schock’s inner sanctum was: “another dramatic red room. This one with a drippy crystal chandelier, a table propped up by two eagles, a bust of Abraham Lincoln and massive arrangements of pheasant feathers.”
Schock’s communications director, Benjamin Cole, just about collapsed from the vapors when he found out a reporter had slipped past the velvet ropes (“You’ve got a member [of Congress] willing to talk to you about other things,” he complained. “Why sour it by rushing to write some gossipy piece?”)
Within days, Cole was gone, due not to the Downton dustup but for making stupid racist comments on Facebook that he apparently thought were amusing. As Violet Crawley, the dowager countess, would say, “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.” (Yes, we confess, “Downton Abbey” is a guilty pleasure for us, too)
In truth, Schock’s office looks more like a cut-rate version of the infamous Red Room in 50 Shades of Grey than the height of inherited, entitled elegance. House members pay for such renovations and furniture from a taxpayer-funded account that also covers staff and official travel.
For example, according to USA Today, after Rep. Schock was first elected, during a period from December 2009 into the first part of 2010, the congressman spent nearly $120,000 on furniture and renovations, including hardwood floors, “high-end countertops” and painting.
The Euro Trash decorator friend said she had offered her current professional services for free, although the nonpartisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) notes that in 2012, Rep. Schock’s campaign paid $5,522 to her company for “office equipment.”
Within a day or so of the Post story, Rep. Schock announced he would be paying her for her work as well as the various new furnishings, which presumably include the pheasant feathers. House rules prevent taking for free anything worth $50 or more, “gifts of services, training, transportation, lodging, and meals, whether provided in kind, by purchase of a ticket, payment in advance, or reimbursement after the expense has been incurred.”
This isn’t the first time Congressman Schock’s financial dealings have come under scrutiny. The congressional newspaper Roll Call notes, “The House Ethics Committee still has a referral” from March 2012, stemming “from an Office of Congressional Ethics investigation that found he may have improperly solicited contributions for an anti-incumbent super PAC.”
And recently, the progressive website Blue Nation Review reported, “The month before the 2012 elections, Congressman Schock sold his house to a major Republican donor who was also one of his campaign supporters for a price that appears to far exceed the market value at the time.”
The donor was a vice president at the construction equipment company Caterpillar Inc., which in last year’s midterm elections was Schock’s second biggest campaign contributor.
Come to think of it, Schock’s new office decor puts us more in mind of a bordello, if it was decorated by Pee Wee Herman. Which might be the more apt metaphor for Congress these days. Although the transfer of cash isn’t supposed to take place on the premises, members are doing very well with their outcall services, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats.
As Ken Silverstein recently wrote at The Intercept, we now have “a political consensus that churns out business-friendly policies no matter which party is in power”
“One of the reasons that government works well for the wealthy is that so many elected officials are wealthy themselves, and directly benefit from the economic measures they pass. The median net worth of the current Congress is slightly north of $1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics [CRP], and that surely understates their wealth because it’s based on financial disclosure forms that don’t require the listing of real estate holdings.”
CRP estimates Schock’s net worth, as of 2013, at $1,398,695, right at that median sweet spot. Promoting his image as one of the younger members of Congress (he’s now 33), Rep. Schock likes to feature pictures of himself surfing, snowboarding and hang gliding at various beautiful locations (he often hires a personal photographer).
But this isn’t just about publicity for his admirably toned physique. Schock is all about raising money for his party and fellow Republican members and to pull in that kind of cash perceived wisdom says you have to spend a bundle to attract it. That translates into lots of trips, expensive meals, private jets and time in lavish hotels and resorts. It’s a burden but someone has to do it.
Politico reports, “In Aspen, Colorado, [Schock] stays at the Little Nell, a five-star resort near the ski slopes. In Las Vegas, he prefers the pricey Wynn hotel. While in Vail, Colorado, and San Francisco, it’s the Four Seasons. In Miami Beach, he’s sampled the Delano, Fontainebleau and the exclusive Soho Beach House. And in Beverly Hills, California, he’s tried both the Peninsula and the Beverly Wilshire.”
It’s also about providing playtime for deep-pocketed contributors. Again, according to Politico, “Schock is constantly fundraising, and he has repeatedly attended high-profile events. On Jan. 31, 2014, Schock cut a check to the NFL for more than $10,000 to cover the cost of Super Bowl tickets. In April 2013, Schock spent $3,320 on tickets to the CMA Country Music Awards. Instead of holding fundraisers at golf courses — as dozens of other Republicans do — Schock insiders say he prefers sporting and music events.”
And you wonder why so little attention is paid to the poor and middle class?
Like one of the characters from “Downton Abbey,” Aaron Schock has made quite a climb, from public servant downstairs to pampered upstairs aristocrat. Meanwhile, when he’s not jetting to and fro, raising and spending cash, perhaps Congressman Aaron Schock can dream up new ways of raking in money — and spending it — as he sits in his ornate new office.
What next? With the pope speaking before Congress in September, how about selling indulgences to corporate fat cats and turning the congressman’s workspace into a modest replica of the Sistine Chapel? That might be just the thing.
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos.