When Congress worked for them: Bobby Baker and congressional corruption

Bobby Baker Wheeling and Dealing 11-21-2017.png

By Kevin R. Kosar

To those who would wax eloquent about the good old days when Congress worked for us: let us not forget Bobby Baker, who died on November 12 at age 89.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy once called Baker "the 101st senator." That is how powerful he was to the chamber's operations. Baker was a Senate aide who on a salary of less than $20,000 per year became a millionaire, a wheeler-dealer who ran a brothel for legislators on Capitol Hill. 

Baker declared in his tell-much, 1978 memoir, Wheeling and Dealing (W.W. Norton), of the rampant corruption on the Hill, especially amongst the then regnant Democrats. Being on the take, in short, was the norm. “As they [legislators] presumed their high stations to entitle them to accept gratuities or hospitalities from patrons who had special axes to grind, so did I. As they used their powerful positions to gain loans or credit that otherwise might not have been granted, so did I.” 

Things were so bad that when Congress investigated itself it produced a white-wash; and when Baker sat for an interview with the Senate historical office the transcripts were so jaw-dropping that they were not released online. Todd Purdum got a look at them in 2013 and produced this eye-popping article on them. It paints an ugly picture; drunkenness and sexual harassment were common, and corruption was endemic. Here are two excerpts from the full 231-page transcript:

"Baker explained the method used by Walter Reuther, the longtime head of the United Autoworkers Union, to get cash to senators at a time when unions were barred from making political contributions. [Baker stated:] 'He had to be very careful with cash money that came to his union in the United States. But he had no such rule in Canada. So as a consequence, Walter Reuther, probably because of his cash contributions, had a minimum of 20 senators that would vote any way he wanted. … He bought more United States Senate seats than anybody in my life. I’m telling you, it was unreal for Senator Ted Moss [D-Utah] or Gale McGee [D- Wyo.], coming from basically Republican territory, to get elected. Because Walter Reuther gave money. But boy, when I needed to get them to help on a vote, if Walter Reuther called them, I could never change them.'"
"[Baker reports:] '“I was always very fond of Senator Tommy Kuchel [D-Calif.]. He was a fun guy. … Kuchel was having a relationship with his secretary, so he’d come over to me and ask me if I could send a page boy to buy him some rubbers—true story!”

Congressional Camelot it was not.

Bobby Baker is not, however, just a footnote in history. He and those of his ilk present an enduring challenge to congressional reform and self-governance generally.

Baker is an extreme example of the problem of the self-interested staffer---the individual who develops his own interest separate from the public interest, or even the interest of the legislators he is supposed to serve. Baker became the master of many elected officials because he worked harder, knew better how things worked, and by preying upon their weaknesses.

Thus, Baker is relevant to the problem of congressional capacity. Many of us believe the data show the legislative branch has far too few expert staff to carry out its responsibilities. "Hire more and treat them better," we say.

Which, to be clear, would be wise, but this proposition invites the question: "How will you keep them from becoming an interest unto themselves, the ultimate insiders invisible to the public and accountable only to the bosses who depend upon them?

Good question, and one that is worth thinking more deeply about. Madison wrote that a great challenge in representative government was to connect the interests of the man to the prerogatives of the position. Thus, we all ought to think more about how to ensure the interests of staff can be made to coincide with good governance.

Kevin R. Kosar edits LegBranch.com and is the vice president of policy at the R Street Institute.