Schock Fallout: Rules Subject to Interpretation
Rep. Aaron Schock’s downfall marks another high-profile lawmaker felled by ethics troubles. But don’t expect Congress to ramp up efforts at self-policing.
Some say interpretation of right and wrong when it comes to office expenditures is pretty basic.
“I think the rules are clear enough for people to interpret those on their own,” said Rep. Gregg Harper, who serves with the Illinois Republican on the House Administration Committee, the panel responsible for divvying up the annual appropriations each lawmaker receives.
“Rules are pretty simple to follow,” added Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla.
The nine-member committee, appointed directly by leadership, also sets rules on how the money may be used, which Schock is alleged to have repeatedly violated.
Harper and others don’t see the Schock affair as a teachable moment. Is more clarity needed in the House, where, unlike the Senate, members are not required to undergo annual ethics training? Nugent said no.
“Typically, even if a member is kind of in the dark about it, your professional staff should really be on top of it,” Nugent said. “Pretty simple. Straightforward. … You know when you’re fudging, I mean, you have to.”
He also suggested the fame Schock accumulated when he joined Congress at age 27, becoming the first person born in the 1980s elected to the chamber, plus campaign money, could be a “corrupting influence.”
So, when is it appropriate to spend official funds?
Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., is intimately familiar with the nuts and bolts of running a congressional office, after spending 16 years as a legislative staff member.
“The rule is you may only spend your funds on those activities that support your representation of your district. I think it would always be true that the answer to that question will be in the eye of the beholder,” Woodall said.
“At the end of the day, the boss is not the House Administration Committee. The boss is your 700,000 constituents back home, and so I think the rules are intentionally written so I’m not beholden to a rules structure here that dictates the individual actions of spending behaviors. I’m beholden to 700,000 folks back home,” he said. “I think that’s by design.”
Schock announced Tuesday afternoon the end of his congressional career, the casualty of a probe which began after The Washington Post detailed his bizarre office decorating habits and spiraled into multiple stories by USA Today, the Chicago Sun-Times, Politico and others on his travel and spending habits.
“I do this with a heavy heart,” the 33-year-old Schock said in his resignation announcement.
He said the “constant questions over the last six weeks have proven a great distraction that has made it too difficult for me to serve the people of the 18th District with the high standards that they deserve and which I have set for myself.”
He was described by colleagues both as someone with great potential and someone who seemed to be more of a showhorse than a workhorse, known more for flexing literal than legislative muscle. (Men’s Health dubbed him “America’s Fittest Congressman” after he bared his chest for the cover in 2011.)
“His trademark in politics is that he was a young boy, young man when he was first elected to the school board in Peoria, then moved up to the state house, then moved up to Congress, then moved up to leadership, and his youth was used as his trademark,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said. “And it turns out that, although he was clearly young, he needed some experience and some advice and some wisdom to make some important decisions, apparently from what we’ve heard today.”
Deeply saddened by the news that Schock pulled the plug on a bright congressional career, Rep. Bill Flores said minutes after news of the resignation, “There’s no limit to how far he could’ve risen.”
The Texas Republican, current chairman of the Republican Study Committee, called Schock a “rising star” who would leave behind a positive legacy for the chamber he served in for more than six years, a sentiment shared by many Democrats in the wake of the Tuesday afternoon announcement.
“I don’t know about the veracity of the allegations against him,” Flores said, reacting to six weeks of scrutiny of Schock’s spending of taxpayer and campaign money. Revelations that he logged thousands of dollars worth of private plane rides and, according to Politico, faulty mileage on private vehicles, forced Schock’s exit. “It’s a shame that those things weighed down, I think, a good legislative career that he’s had here,” Flores said.
Harper, who learned the ropes of Congress alongside Schock as a fellow freshmen member of the 111th Congress, said he had been a great member to work with and a great friend. “We hate that he’s made that decision, you know, that’s obviously for him to make. … But we’ll truly miss him and I wish him well in the future.”
Democratic Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, a fellow member of the Illinois delegation, refrained from addressing the rules, saying he was “sad to see such a wonderful, intelligent young man have to resign.”
“When you’re saddened at somebody’s demise, it seems inappropriate to even venture as to what lessons are learned,” Gutiérrez told CQ Roll Call. “He’s a smart guy. I’m sure he’s going to pick himself up by his bootstraps.”
Allegations of improper spending sank the career of another Illinois congressman. Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who represented the Chicago area, resigned his seat in November 2012 amid federal ethics investigations. Jackson was sentenced to 30 months in prison in 2013 for misusing roughly $750,000 in campaign funds over the course of several years.
Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who reserved judgement of Schock during the controversy, reminded reporters his delegation has been through this before. He said allegations against Schock raised important questions about his expenditure of campaign funds and official funds, but would not necessarily inspire any attempts within Congress to clarify ethics rules related to spending.
“You know I don’t think there’s any question about ambiguity in terms of the law and the rules. The question is his conduct and how he could rationalize some of the things that he’s been charged with,” Durbin said.