On Saturday, The New York Times reported that the Justice Department is preparing to file corruption charges against New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez following a two-year investigation into allegations he accepted gifts and lavish vacations in exchange for political favors. Criminal charges have long been anticipated. In 2013, Menendez was named by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) as one of the most corrupt senators.
Senator Menendez, like every other American, is entitled to a presumption of innocence when facing criminal prosecution. But continuing to serve in the Democratic leadership in the Senate while he remains under a cloud of suspicion of trading the power of his office for money is a different matter.
What happened in similar situations in the past? In 2008-2009, The New York Times, The Washington Post and many Democrats called for Rep. Charlie Rangel to step down from his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee while ethics allegations against him were investigated. In March 2010, he did so.
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Senator Menendez currently serves as Democratic leader – “ranking member” – on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Thus, for example, he has a leading role in formulating the policy of Senate Democrats regarding US diplomacy with Iran and regarding a Congressional authorization for the use of force against ISIS. Under a cloud of suspicion for trading political favors for money, Menendez should step down from this leadership position.
Some might think that it was more urgent for Rangel to step down from leadership of Ways and Means than for Menendez to step down from Senate Foreign Relations because of the key role of Ways and Means in writing US tax law.
But it would be a grave mistake to think that less vigilance is justified in preventing corruption in foreign policy than in domestic policy. The majority of our federal income tax dollars are spent on foreign policy, mostly on the military. The opportunities for corruption are arguably greater in foreign policy because the primary victims of corruption in foreign policy are people who live in other countries. If somebody steals the money that is supposed to go to Social Security or veterans, people in the US are likely to cry foul immediately. If somebody steals the money that is supposed to go to earthquake relief in Haiti, only people in Haiti with much more limited political influence in the US are going to feel the pain directly.
A key determinant of the level of corruption is the level of social tolerance for corruption. When I was a college student, a housemate told me his experience of taking the drivers’ license exam in Chicago. The examiner got in the passenger seat and turned down the sun visor to see if there was anything behind it, which there wasn’t. “Oh no,” my friend thought, “I just flunked the exam.” And indeed he had. The next time he took the exam, he made sure there was a $20 bill behind the sun visor. That time, he passed the exam.
My friend and I agreed that this was terrible. But beyond that, we didn’t do anything. We didn’t try to report it somewhere, or write a letter to the editor, or start a petition at MoveOn. We just shook our heads. “That’s Chicago, what can you do?”
The top Democrat in the Senate on foreign policy should not be someone scheduled to face criminal charges for political corruption. You can sign our petition here.