EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO, John Miller took a leave from his post as a KIRO-TV commentator to run for Congress. Not good enough, this paper editorialized: Remaining even nominally employed by a media outlet and licensed broadcaster while running for office was, in principle at least, a conflict of interest. Miller promptly conceded the point and quit outright. He won the election, so he never had to regret the decision.
Perhaps politicians were more easily shamed then, and ethical distinctions were taken more seriously. No one raised an eyebrow, let alone a ruckus, at the spectacle of U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, interviewing for a big-bucks lobbying job with an industry that has many irons in the federal fire. Last month, sources disclosed that Dunn was considering a $700,000-a-year job as executive director of the Air Transport Association (ATA), the airlines' lobbying group.
News reports chewed over one implication—that such a move would remove Dunn from challenging Sen. Patty Murray in 2004. They ignored another question, which isn't satisfied by the news last week that Dunn didn't get the job: What the heck is a member of Congress doing discussing a job (that pays nearly five times her congressional salary) with one of the industries she essentially oversees?
Dunn's chief of staff, Doug Badger, says she isn't looking to leave Congress, that the ATA job "wasn't offered" ultimately, and that interviewing for it was business as usual. "Like most people, she'll always listen to what people have to offer," he says. "Throughout her congressional career, there have been many attempts to recruit Jennifer into the private sector," Badger told The Associated Press last month. "She has always listened to these opportunities, but they have to compete with her strong commitment to public service."
But would not her constituents be better served if that commitment didn't have to compete with private offers?
Considering such offers is not illegal, and leaders of two national clean-government groups—Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, and Ben Beycel, vice president of Common Cause—say it doesn't necessarily constitute a substantive conflict. Nor is it rare for departed members of Congress to cash in on their access and expertise as lobbyists. What is unusual, says Noble, is "for a member to be looking for a job right after being elected. If you've just been re-elected," as Dunn was a month before the ATA came calling, "your constituents expect you to represent them." He adds that "someone not running again may put out feelers," and word of his or her availability quickly spreads. "But most members just focus on getting re-elected." When they start entertaining offers, "you have to ask, 'Do they have one eye on the exit door as well as on their job?' What happens over the next two years? Is there any prospect of jobs being held for later?"
And you have to wonder if there are subtexts. Dunn, a Bush stalwart and reputed favorite, was touted for his cabinet, but Western Washington's lone Republican representative may have been deemed too valuable where she was. Leaking rumors of the ATA job could send a message to Karl Rove, Bush's brain: Show more consideration and support her run against Murray.
Unfortunately, notes Beycel, it also sends another message: "It adds to the perception of the average Jane and Joe that Congress is for sale." If Dunn's and other members' "commitment to public service" is so strong, they should be able to say, "I can't hear you," to fat cats dangling fat offers.