Aaron Schock has always been considered something of a prodigy. At age 19, he became the youngest elected school board member in Illinois history. At age 23, he set another record when he won election to the legislature as the youngest member ever of the Illinois General Assembly. Four years later, at the ripe old age of 27, the hard-charging Republican won election to the US House as the youngest member of Congress.
And now, in the midst of his fourth Congressional term, at age 33, Representative Schock became the youngest member of Congress ever to lose his seat over an uncontrollable passion for interior decorating.
He resigned this week because of repercussions surrounding a Washington Post article about his absurdly opulent Congressional office and the improper way he had funded its remodeling to resemble one of the stately, aristocratic homes featured on the TV series “Downton Abbey.” The office renovations featured blood-red walls, a huge crystal chandelier and “a plume of pheasant feathers.” Government watchdog groups complained that all this elegance had violated Congressional rules because Congressman Shock had accepted it as an improper gift; by the time he offered to pay a decorator $40,000 of his own money to make up for his ethical lapse, numerous other irregularities had come to light, including the improper use of thousands of dollars from his official government account for private flights, legal expenses, new cars, tickets to the Super Bowl and the Country Music Awards, in addition to cufflinks, massages, “gold equipment” (of unspecified nature), and cigars. The final humiliation involved Shock’s billing of the federal government and his own campaign for 90,000 more miles of travel expenses on his personal vehicle than the odometer on the car indicated he had accumulated.
With his resignation from Congress effective on March 31, Shock avoided an impending ethics inquiry and could still declare with a straight face that he actually had his constituents in mind with his decision to leave the House. “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.”
Of course, the youthful Shock is hardly alone in his questionable use of campaign and public funds. His one-time colleague from Illinois, Jesse Jackson Jr., received a 30 month jail sentence for diverting campaign funds for such necessities as mink vests and star-shaped diamond earrings.
But Schock is a Republican, a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative, who had frequently been discussed as a rising star in the party, considered a likely candidate for governor or US Senate, or for a future position in House Leadership. His disgrace illustrates a deeper problem that increasingly afflicts the House of Representatives as an Institution.
Winning a seat in Congress today requires the ability to raise, on average, just under $2,000,000 dollars in order to secure a single two year term. In major urban districts (Schock represented a mostly rural and small city district in downstate Illinois) successful candidates need much more, with campaigns demanding ten million dollars on a regular basis.
By what calculus does it make sense to beg for millions in donations from friends, family and, most of all, strangers, in order to lock up a job for two years that pays $174,000 a year?
Of course, that relatively modest Congressional salary is supplemented by an allowance for “personnel, mail and office expenses” that averages $1.4 million per member of the House— precisely the allowance that helped lure Aaron Schock to his political destruction.
But in any other field the expenditure of huge amounts of donated cash to win a position with minimal job security and distinct limits on its financial returns would seem highly dubious if not outright insane. After all his youthful success, Aaron Schock may have felt entitled to Downton Abbey splendor; at least his office with the pheasant feathers could make him feel like an aristocrat.
But real aristocrats don’t have to campaign every two years and raise prodigious amounts of money that you’re strictly prohibited from diverting for your personal benefit (no mink vests, no gold equipment).
Many observers will look at the Schock affair as one more indication that our elected representatives, Republican as well as Democratic, don’t on a whole represent the highest examples of American integrity, hard work and dedication. But in context, the sad story also highlights irrational aspects of the seemingly unquenchable, increasingly unaffordable drive to seek public office, with or without Downton Abbey décor.
This column appeared at TruthRevolt.org on March 19, 2015.