As of this afternoon, Sen. Mary Landrieu is acknowledging some $34,000 of campaign-related flights, going back apparently a dozen years or more, that were improperly charged to her Senate office account, and therefore to taxpayers. She said her campaign has now reimbursed the Senate, and thus the taxpayers, for the errors.
Let’s be clear what this is and what it isn’t. What it is not, at least not necessarily, is a sign of intentional corruption. Sometimes record-keeping in Congress can indeed get sloppy. Sometimes when a trip from DC to Louisiana is mostly for official purposes, and then a quick campaign flight is added on, it can be possible for a Senate office worker who is not being attentive to just pay for the whole trip from the office account. And face it: Landrieu and her husband together are millionaires, apparently several times over, and her campaign fundraising always has been successful, too. For her or her campaign, $34,000 over 12 years is relative child’s play. There would be no real incentive to slough those flights off on the taxpayers, unless it was part and parcel of a habitual effort to stick taxpayers or other innocents with all sorts of tabs, amounting to a lot more than $34,000, that Landrieu or her campaign wanted to avoid. That certainly does not seem to be the case here. What we are then left with, it seems — absent a mens rea, meaning (approximately) a “guilty mind” — is an example of fairly longstanding book-keeping incompetence.
It’s definitely an embarrassment, but not likely “corruption” in the way the word is usually understood.
The question is, how big an embarrassment should it be?
Well, since it’s not just two flights, but apparently a dozen or more, that makes the incompetence itself somewhat habitual. Looked at one way, it also can be an indicator of an office staff that no longer is vigilant enough about making a distinction between politicking and governing. And, since staffs really do take their cues from the top, it could serve as an indicator that Sen. Landrieu herself might, somewhere along the line, have fallen into the Beltway blindness, combined with a feeling of entitlement which sometimes comes with a long practice of power.
There’s a potentially good analogy available: Back in the early 1990s, a huge number of congressmen were caught up in what became known as the “House Bank Scandal,” whereby a special bank for congressman was allowing them to kite checks for months or even years at a time. In conjunction with a similar sort of scandal involving the House Post Office, it quickly came to symbolize a Congress that had grown out of touch, with a sense of entitlement to special treatment that ordinary people wouldn’t get. Indeed, it became a national flash point, and over the course of two election cycles it played a huge role in re-election losses by dozens of incumbents.
Except in egregious examples (involving maybe two dozen members whose abuses were so large or habitual that it seemed to amount to deliberate corruption), most Members involved turned out to be responsible for only a few overdrafts here and there. The fewer there were, the more likely the problems were merely book-keeping, just as almost everybody at one time or another in his life makes a mistake and overdraws a checking account. Still, enraged voters often treated even one “kited” check as an indicator that the congressman in question had been captured by the self-serving Beltway mentality — and, in response, threw those Members out on their ears in the next possible election.
It seems to me that Landrieu’s airplane troubles — Mary’s Air Errors, perhaps? — fall in the same category as the House Bank Scandal, somewhere in the mid-level range of transgressors back then. In other words, Landrieu’s office didn’t err just once or twice or three times, which really could be shrugged off in the greater scheme of things; but she apparently did not rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars of false charges to taxpayers, involving dozens upon dozens of flights, either.
UPDATE: It’s a bit worse than I thought. By my count, there are right around 100 flights at issue, of which 43 (quick count!) were wrongly charged. That gets pretty close to “dozens.”
Louisiana voters should look at the totality of the record to decide for themselves if Mary’s Air Errors, in conjunction with other behaviors, are evidence that she has lost touch with the non-entitled lives of ordinary people. I make no judgment here. I hope, though, that I have provided some reasonable context.