Big economic factors such as the growth and unemployment rates, mortgage delinquencies, gasoline prices, bankruptcies, public deficits, and debt will override everything else in importance in this fall's national election campaigns. But the overall context of the campaigns will also depend on matters that relate to the integrity of our public institutions, regardless of party.
Start with the story this last week of the Secret Service and hookers. In my own years in Washington, D.C., including several when I was in daily contact with Secret Service agents on protective-service details, I found them to be exemplary. They were hard working, dedicated, and willing to risk their own lives to protect the President, Vice President, their families, and visiting foreign leaders.
They were young men of action, with lots of testosterone, but they also were hyper-responsible. There were indiscretions but not the careless kind committed in Colombia by the several agents who allegedly partied with hookers, while preparing for a visit by President Obama, and did so quite openly.
On one occasion, while I served as Vice President Humphrey's assistant, two senior Secret Service agents assigned to the vice president told me that President Johnson was tapping the phones in Humphrey's Executive Office Building suite, including Humphrey's own line. This was during the Vietnam War era. I told Humphrey about the taps. He was dismayed, but we agreed that other staff would not be told and that we would continue to use our phones without inhibition.
On another occasion, at the end of President Nixon's first year in the White House, I encountered several senior Secret Service agents at the dinner hour on a Washington, D.C. street. They were headed to an Italian restaurant nearby and invited me to join them. At dinner they related one disgusting episode after another, all involving Nixon or Vice President Spiro Agnew. They had to tell someone who would understand, they said. In neither case should the Secret Service agents have told me what they knew. It was indiscreet. But I could not imagine the same men throwing a booze-and-hookers party in another country while there to assure a president's safety.
Another salient story concerns non-payment of taxes. An investigation earlier this year by Investors Business Daily found widespread tax delinquencies in the year 2010 among both Executive-branch and Congressional staff. This came during a time when taxes were at center stage in national debate.
U.S. Senate staff, of both political parties, owed $2.1 million in unpaid taxes. U.S. House staff owed $8.5 million. Department of Education employees owed $4.3 million. Homeland Security staff, supposedly patriotic and reliable, owed $37 million. The Justice Department, the chief law-enforcement agency nationally, had staffers owing $17 million in delinquent taxes. Altogether, federal employees nationally owed more than $3.4 billion in back taxes, up 3 percent over the previous year.
Among the biggest offenders were Obama White House staff: 36 staffers owed $834,000 in back taxes. The IRS reported that 21 Obama aides were paid $172,000 each, by the way, quite an increase from the $20,000 annually I was paid during four years in the Johnson White House.
Then comes Solyndra and more. A CBS News investigation earlier this year brought the revelation that 80 percent of the Department of Energy's $20.5 billion in green-energy loans went to Obama fundraisers and donors. The failure of Solyndra grabbed the most public attention. But, it turns out, there were 11 more Solyndra-type loans to failed green-energy companies. They ate $6.5 billion in taxpayer dollars. The person at the Department of Energy in charge of deciding which companies received DOE loans and grants was Steve Spinner, not a scientist but a member of Obama's national finance committee and a noted bundler of political money.
The real Solyndra and green-energy scandals, in my judgment, lay elsewhere. The nearly $1 trillion administration stimulus package, intended to fight recession and create jobs, contained all kinds of programs having little to do with economic growth or job creation. Many billions were channeled to energy, education, and other programs — some of which no doubt were meritorious — which should have been funded in other government accounts. Former White House chief of staff (and now Chicago mayor) Rahm Emanuel said at the time that "no crisis should be allowed to go to waste." The flow of so-called stimulus money to other purposes is what he was talking about.
The Obama administration is not the first one to have channeled public contracts to ventures run by political donors and supporters. But it was particularly painful to see it happen when the country was in deep financial and economic trouble and trying to climb out of a downturn that is still not over.
The Secret Service's careless revelry, the non-payment of taxes by federal and congressional employees, and the awarding of big public contracts to political cronies will not of and by themselves cause voters to tip to one candidate or party over another this November. Nor will revelations, during our just concluded state legislative session, that state employees were retiring at 55 with more generous taxpayer-funded pensions and benefits than their private-sector counterparts.
But, taken together and combined with other follies, these things will put voters even more deeply into fed-up-and-won't-take-it-anymore mindsets. Think Tea Party and Occupy movement. Think growing numbers of independent voters — now more numerous than either Democrats or Republicans — looking for leaders perceived as tough and honest irrespective of party label.