When is a scandal not quite a scandal? Let me set a few scenes for you.
A powerful senior senator allegedly is caught stiffing two prostitutes for their full payment after a night’s work in a foreign country.
Separately, the same senator is found to have an office intern who is both an illegal immigrant and a registered sex offender. It gets worse: when federal immigration agents were preparing to arrest the individual, they were told to back off until after the senator’s reelection.
These allegations have been directed at New Jersey’s Sen. Robert Menendez. The first accusation was made by the conservative website The Daily Caller days before the election, and though their story included interviews with the two women in question, the story has not been independently verified by a nonpartisan news source.
However, in the case of the rogue intern and the delayed arrest, the AP has now confirmed that early reports were correct despite its being told by the Department of Homeland Security that the reports were “categorically false.”
This should all be a big story—even more so because with the appointment of John Kerry to be the next secretary of state, Senator Menendez is slated to become the chairman of the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That position carries real weight, representing the United States Congress to the rest of the world.
Given the stakes—and the combined seriousness and salaciousness of the allegations—it is stunning that the scandal has not gotten more attention. Instead, there has been something close to a collective media shrug. Yes, it’s true that New Jerseyans have been rightfully preoccupied with their recovery from Hurricane Sandy, with Menendez laboring on their behalf and even receiving an accolade from his onetime investigator Chris Christie. But it’s frankly hard to imagine a Republican senator getting a similar pass.
But in fairness, let’s compare Menendez’s scandal with that of Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, who spent the night before Christmas Eve doing several vodka shots before getting behind the wheel of his car in Virginia.
Crapo was arrested in the early-Sunday-morning hours and booked, complete with humiliating mug shot. The story came with the base alloy of hypocrisy—Crapo is a staunch social conservative and a devout Mormon who had publicly professed that he did not drink, as proscribed by his faith.
With the Crapo arrest, there was a flurry of online outcries, muted perhaps by the fact that it was Christmas. But after an apology and court date, Crapo went back to the Senate and got a promotion—he was tapped to serve as the party’s chief deputy whip. Oh, and he’s also the ranking GOP member of the banking committee.
I’ve debated with friends which senator’s civic sin is worse. Pete Dominick has argued that Menendez’s alleged procurement of prostitutes was a victimless crime (prostitution is apparently legal in the Dominican Republic, and Menendez is not married), whereas Crapo’s sin wasn’t just hypocrisy—he could have killed someone. This is true.
What’s also true is that if a private citizen had been credibly accused of these very shady deeds, at the very least he wouldn’t have received a public promotion so soon after the fact. There is a shamelessness to the lack of inquiry or accountability in the Senate chambers. Both men are protected by senior status and recent reelections. Voters won’t have a chance to voice their opinion for several years, and memories are short, particularly in deep red or blue states—just ask Sen. David Vitter.
But it is reasonable to expect that good judgment be a factor in Senate promotions, if not always in elections. There are frat boys who wouldn’t do shots of vodka before getting behind the wheel—let alone allegedly frequent prostitutes in the D.R. The now-confirmed scandal of federal agents being asked to back off from an arrest is another dimension of allegation entirely, beyond personal scandal, and headed toward what sure looks like an abuse of power on somebody’s part.
Maybe all this can be chalked up to just another example of why Congress is less popular than head lice or root canal. In both cases, partisan media were quick to jump on the sins of the opposing party member while more or less ignoring the inconvenient allegations against the guy on their team. But even more troubling is their post-scandal promotions and the tacit admission that winning matters more than doing the right thing in the Senate clubhouse.