Rep. Schock's case of extravagance might be shocking, but it's also common

Posted at 3:18 PM, Feb 26, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-27 22:05:00-05

Aaron Schock has gone from over the top to lawyering up.

Every other day seems to bring fresh revelations about how Schock, a Republican congressman from Illinois, has spent tens of thousands of dollars on travel at taxpayer, campaign or donor expense. Now Schock has hired attorneys and a PR firm to help him deal with the fallout.

Schock is far from being the only politician to accept extreme hospitality. Chris Christie, the GOP governor of New Jersey and potential presidential candidate, got himself in trouble by accepting free plane rides to Dallas Cowboys games from the team owner. He's hitched other free rides and his family once enjoyed a weekend getaway courtesy of King Abdullah of Jordan, who picked up $30,000 worth of hotel and party bills.

Christie and Schock are examples of something all-too-common: Politicians wanting to live, for however brief a time, like the rich people who sometimes surround them.

In Schock's case, feathering his own nest meant using actual ostrich feathers. Several weeks ago, Schock began drawing unwanted attention to his spending habits with the revelation he'd spent some $100,000 refurbishing his offices back home and in D.C.

His capitol digs are now done up in a style that's sort of a cross between Downton Abbey and Harold and the Purple Crayon, only this time the crayon in question was red. ("Republican red," Schock inevitably explained.)

That's just how he operates when he's staying put. Politicoreports that Schock has taken five-star trips to London and elsewhere. All told, over the past four years, Schock has taken at least a dozen flights worth more than $40,000 on donors' planes, according to an Associated Press review.

How did the AP figure this out? In part, reporters tracked down the metadata from pictures Schock himself posted on social media.

That displays the difficulty politicians have in keeping junkets secret in the smartphone era, says Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College in Arkansas.

"If you are a public figure, you are an open book, especially with emerging technology," Barth says. "There's really nothing you can hide."

That's important, because luxury travel can easily look bad. Whenever politicians meet en masse, interest groups are sure to follow, always happy to pick up the tab.

How can public officials convince constituents they haven't given more than a fair hearing to companies or individuals that have shown them an extremely good time, and then wound up with a helpful loophole or contract soon after?

Last month, Time Warner Cable hosted dozens of state legislators at an upscale resort in Maine, looking to convince them that a proposal to expand broadband into rural areas (which could hurt the company's bottom line) was a bad idea.

Expensive hotel rooms and swank receptions are "obviously intended to persuade them by more than the validity of the arguments," Gordon Weil, who is fighting Time Warner on the legislation, told the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. "It's intended to persuade by the reception they're given."

Lots of politicians will point out that much of their travel consists of attending boring but useful conferences where they can bone up on the finer points of, say, financing water infrastructure. Members of Congress who can steal away from their diplomatic or military handlers can learn a lot about what troops need from visiting them in the field.

Good ideas often come from seeing what peers are doing in other places. You've got to go there to know there, to paraphrase the great African American writer Zora Neale Hurston.

But there's a point where justification gives way to junket. All too often, legitimate educational or business trips become occasions for pampering -- or even skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee, as happened during one notorious congressional visit to Israel a couple of years back. And Schock is not the only member of Congress with expensive decorating tastes.

Long before recent news about the Clinton Foundation accepting millions from foreign governments while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, she and Bill Clinton both faced complaints about their status as frequent fliers on private jets.

Politicians and their staffs -- if they're smart -- have learned to think carefully about how any given email might look if its contents were reproduced on the front page of the Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. They should approach travel expense forms with the same caution.

Elected officials shouldn't have to stay at low-end motels where their doors open up to the parking lot. But maybe they could limit meals and rooms to a level they could easily afford if they were, in fact, paying out of pocket.

It's fun to live large at someone else's expense, but you quickly run the risk of looking like you belong, in some real sense, to wealthy interests.

[Also on DecodeDC: How the Obamas won the Internet]

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