The Legislative Shakedown

The indiscreet voicemail, left by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) for a lobbyist, sounded a bit like a “shakedown”, which is no big surprise.

I know from first-hand experience that Ms. Norton can use veiled threats and thuggish behavior when she wants to have her way.

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During my time as the Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), I was the recipient of late night phone calls at my home, during which Holmes wanted to “discuss” why GSA wasn’t doing more to house government agencies in certain parts of the District of Columbia, in particular, in areas where gentrification was occurring slowly.

Norton’s voracious appetite for “more” often led her to raise her voice and make veiled threats. Once, she even trumped up a meeting where she advocated for more business on behalf of a real estate organization that I later learned had donated to her campaign. When I protested these tactics and refused to attend further such meetings, the political pressure was cranked up and political unpleasantness became the norm. Norton always claimed she was just doing her job.

Many Americans may be shocked to hear Holmes’ indiscreet voicemail, but, from my experiences in Washington, it seems that Holmes may have learned these tactics from the top leadership of her party. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), the Majority Whip, has been especially thuggish in the past, screaming and issuing threats at the homes of federal agency leaders, should one of his pork projects be questioned.

The “gimme”, as practiced by some Democrat legislators, can range from subtle and respectful, as is probably appropriate for any request, to disrespectful and threatening. It seems as if there are some legislators who want to make sure there is no doubt in your mind that if you don’t cough up the goods during the shakedown, then negative consequences will occur.

Election years put enormous pressure on elected officials to generate funding and successes. Many have to contribute to coffers of the party to support their Chairmanships. Others need the funding and the projects to prove their effectiveness to their constituents.

For example, one Massachusetts congressman wanted to increase the number of courtrooms in a federal courthouse being built in his district. The additional courtroom would extend the project and increase the size of the appropriations required to complete the project. He was very displeased to find that, since the project was mid-cycle, the costs to increase the courthouse size by a third would be prohibitive and would set the project back by years. He disregarded the Judiciary’s claim that there weren’t enough federal judges or cases to warrant the increase.

The congressman didn’t seem to care about the efficacy of the project, the desperate need from the Judiciary to get a working structure in place or that the Appropriations committee had been quite specific as to how much funding it had to allocate. It was an election year, and it seemed that the congressman wanted to show his constituents that he had the ability to “bring home the bacon.”

Once again, when told “no”, fireworks erupted and accusations abounded.

While requesting campaign contributions and requesting building projects in one’s district or state may seem to be different kinds of monetary exchanges, the effect, in essence, of either is that the elected official is able to use the power of his/her position to force contributions. The campaign funding or the public announcement of the project is a way to enhance his/her candidacy–both are used to advertise the effectiveness of the elected official.

Under the current Majority, Americans have seen Speaker Pelosi and the Senate Majority Leader Reid arm-twisting and promising benefits, special projects or money to legislators, in what almost amounts to bribery, in order to sway their votes so that a poorly structured healthcare bill or a bloated, ineffective stimulus could be passed into law. Pelosi and Reid would probablyclaim they are just doing their job.

Is it any wonder that some Democrat legislators, perhaps less sensitive to the nuances of the political give-and-take, follow the lead of the Majority leaders in the House and the Senate and go one step further?

Eleanor Holmes Norton’s voicemail would seem to indicate that the answer to that question is-no.

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