On Dec. 5, 2011, hedge fund titan Raj Rajaratnam spent the first of 3,491 nights in federal prison. Rajaratnam received a sentence of 11 years for using inside information to enhance his stock portfolio. If he were only a member of Congress! That way he could have pocketed his gains and slept at home with his children each of these nights. Having spent almost 1,300 nights in a federal prison myself, I can't but feel pain for Rajaratnam, and I certainly don't wish prison on members of Congress, or anyone else, but come on! Does Congress actually expect the American people to sit by and watch them enrich themselves while flaunting the laws the rest of us must obey? Unfortunately, they do.
When they finish their congressional service, far too many members of our national legislative body plan to become lobbyists, strategic advisers or history professors – which seems to be quite a lucrative line of late. This is bad enough for those who believe it unseemly to cash in on one's public service by making the trip through the revolving door to the influence industry, rarely called by its impolitic name: lobbying. The Congress members and staff who wind up in lobbying and influence firms often triple their previous salaries on the first day in the private sector. To the special interests, these freshly minted advisers are the coin of the realm, as they still bear the aroma of power and connections. Once they join the K Street crowd, these erstwhile idealistic citizen-legislators, who arrived in Washington with barely the clothes on their backs, will join the ranks of the multimillionaires. America bristles at all of this, giving Congress an approval rating roughly equal to Lizzie Borden, but the legislators hardly seem to care.
He raked in millions as a lobbyist in D.C., then served time behind bars -- don't miss Jack Abramoff's eye-opening autobiography, "Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Washington Corruption from America's Most Notorious Lobbyist"
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What's even more shocking to the average citizen is how Congress lives while they are public servants. If one ever wondered why Strom Thurmond wanted to stay around until he reached the ripe age of 100, or why Robert Byrd felt the need to stay into his 90s, or why virtually no senator retires from that august body before the mortician is at the door, one only needs to focus on the life of the average honorable public servant known as a United States senator.
The perks of power start with the campaign for office. A well-funded Senate campaign these days can easily run into the mid eight figures. From those funds, most campaigns provide the candidate with a lifestyle few but oligarchs can imagine. Private jets, luxury resorts, fine dining, sartorial splendor are only some of the expenses covered by the campaign kitty, often provided by the rich and powerful. Once in power, the senator has all of these and more – including access to U.S. military jets to whisk him or her to far-flung locales. To ensure our senator is not whisked away with too much pain, he will often travel with an aide. During my years as a lobbyist, these staff aides regaled me with tales of senators melting down when their particular brand of bottled water was not loaded onto the military jet. In fits reminiscent of Hollywood prima donna pique, these statesmen have been known to refuse to ride in commercial aircraft – lest they become begrimed by the hoi polloi (that is, the American people), no doubt.
In addition to the tab of the taxpayers, our long-suffering public servants also get to enjoy the loopholes of the so-called congressional gift ban. Enjoying a lavish meal with a lobbyist friend is no-no, according to congressional rules, but declaring the repast a fundraiser opens the cornucopia floodgates. A lobbyist risks breaking the law when he orders a $500 bottle to go along with that kobe beef steak, but once a fundraiser has been declared, corks can pop open, along with the envelopes bearing thousands of dollars in contributions. For every rule, there is a fitting loophole.
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With the finest health-care options, lucrative pensions, a lifestyle of privilege and comfort, and enough staff to attend to their every whim, our national legislators are doing just great. When you add in not having to worry about those pesky insider-trading rules and other statutes from which they are exempted, Congress should be the destination of every ambitious young go-getter. Why toil in the business world when you can have a life of champagne wishes and caviar dreams on the Potomac? Does this mean that every congressman lives like Louis XIV, or abuses his office? Of course not. But even one is too many, and the count hasn't been at one since before Daniel Webster graced the Senate.