Ethics scandals have plagued the Democrats for the past few months – but the latest is a real doozy. Recently, the Dallas Morning News broke the story about Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) steering Congressional Black Caucus Foundation scholarships worth an estimated $25,000, to (ineligible) family members from 2005 to 2009. She acknowledged the transgression and explained that she recognized the names but “knew that they had a need just like any other kid that would apply for one.” And – here’s the kicker – if there had been “very worthy applicants in [her] district … then [she] probably wouldn't have given it” to the relatives.
Let’s take a look at the 30th Congressional District of Texas, shall we?
According to the Census Bureau, 27,446 families – or 18.4% – are below the poverty line – double the U.S. average of 9.2%. The median family income in 1999 was $35,675 – well below the U.S. average of $50,046. Without a Freedom of Information request, it’s impossible to know how many applicants there were – or what the applications look like. But it seems apparent that there are certainly people of need in Johnson’s district.
Johnson has since repaid the funds, and the issue will probably be put to rest. But the transgression should serve as a valuable reminder of the problem with money in politics overall. As Milton Friedman once said,
When a man spends his own money to buy something for himself, he is very careful about how much he spends and how he spends it. When a man spends his own money to buy something for someone else, he is still very careful about how much he spends, but somewhat less what he spends it on. When a man spends someone else's money to buy something for himself, he is very careful about what he buys, but doesn't care at all how much he spends. And when a man spends someone else's money on someone else, he doesn't care how much he spends or what he spends it on. And that's government for you.
Unfortunately, when politicians exercise control over vast resources – at any level! – they have the power to determine who’s “very worthy” and who’s not. Transparency efforts at the federal, state, and local level have helped to improve oversight and accountability. But at the end of the day, a return to a smaller, more limited government of defined scope is the only real way to check the pervasive culture of corruption.