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There are worse scandals than Weiner

By Julian E. Zelizer, CNN Contributor
  • Anthony Weiner story dominated news coverage in recent weeks
  • Julian Zelizer says far more scandalous aspects of Washington get little attention
  • He says media, public don't pay enough heed to the impact of money on politics
  • He says revolving door between government, special interests is a scandal

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- For weeks, the political conversation has been about Rep. Anthony Wiener. Republicans were indignant. Democrats were furious and frustrated. The media was obsessed with every picture that emerged of the pugnacious legislator, who resigned from Congress on Thursday.

The New York Post's editors set about creating fresh headlines playing on his last name as often as they could.

According to the Pew Research Center for the Project of Excellence in Journalism, the scandal was the No. 1 story in the news last week. It is also the fourth-biggest scandal since 2007 in terms of news space (the list is topped by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, with Eliot Spitzer in second and Larry Craig third).

While the interest and anger over Weiner's behavior were certainly understandable, it is remarkable that it received such attention compared to the much bigger, ongoing problems that revolve around the way power is obtained and preserved in Washington.

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... Politicians and reporters should devote much more attention to the big problems facing our political system ...
--Julian Zelizer

Often considered business as usual, rather than a scandal, these too often elude public scrutiny -- and yet they are scandalous. While the media covers stories about the harmful effects of money in politics and procedural chicanery in Washington, the outrage and interest in these issues pale in comparison to what has been directed toward photographs of this New Yorker in a bathrobe.

During the mid-1960s, then-Illinois Republican Rep. Donald Rumsfeld was frustrated. He was part of a small group of younger Republicans who had been pushing for congressional reform (they were called "Rumsfeld's Raiders"). They argued that the committee system was broken and empowered older committee chairs to protect the status quo and the interests who supported them.

One day, Rumsfeld pulled reporter David Broder into his office and showed him two piles of clippings, one thick and one thin. The thick pile was composed of stories about the escapades of New York Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, who was under constant investigation for tax evasion and for using public funds to pay for luxurious trips with his girlfriends.

The thin pile had three stories about Republicans fighting for procedural reform. Rumsfeld, Broder recalled in his book "Behind the Front Page," asked "why Powell is worth this much attention and our effort is worth this ... our effort to change the system that allows Adam Powell and a lot of others you don't write about to abuse power in ways that are just as bad, why that effort doesn't get any coverage?" Broder, who agreed, responded: "You're not as sexy as he is."

If the concern about how Congress works is genuine, then politicians and reporters should devote much more attention to the big problems facing our political system -- the kinds of problems that leaders in both parties tend to avoid because they touch too close to home.

Here are some under-covered scandals that deserve more attention:

Interest group contributions: One of the most glaring issues has been the flood of private money in political campaigns and the access that interest groups and their lobbyists have to our elected officials. The Supreme Court's Citizen United ruling opened the floodgates for corporations to donate unlimited sums of money to campaigns. The ruling was important, but will only accelerate a trend that has been taking place for decades as interest groups have found ways to make their voices heard in Washington by funding campaigns.

In the 2010 elections, campaign contributions soared to new highs. The Washington Post reported that private interest groups outside the party system spent five times more than they did in 2006.

When stories emerge about the relationship between politicians and interest groups, such as the scandal surrounding Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, the individuals implicated are usually treated as "bad apples" rather than as part of a broader system that gives powerful interest groups such weight in the political process. The Center for Public Integrity recently reported that hundreds of President Obama's largest campaign donors (the "bundlers" who donated more than $50,000) received government positions or were granted plum federal contracts. They have also been invited to social events at the White House.

Blocking of needed action by Congress: Another issue of concern to both parties has been the ways in which Senate minorities have used procedures such as filibusters and holds to cause gridlock. The problems caused by the incessant use of the filibuster and secret holds have been the kind of issues that people inside the beltway care dearly about, but which often don't receive much attention in the daily coverage of politics.

Members of both parties, moreover, have been part of a bipartisan consensus to avoid any kinds of substantive reform so that they can use these procedures when they are in the minority. The chronic use of the filibuster has created a super-majority norm, whereby all major legislation, even matters such as the extension of unemployment insurance in the middle of an economic recession, requires 60 votes. It has also virtually blocked progress on routine decisions, such as executive appointments and judicial confirmations.

Incumbent protection: A third issue that receives very little scrutiny is one of the most basic facts of congressional life: the way in which redistricting by the states protects incumbents. The parties controlling state legislatures constantly craft districts that ensure safe seats and are very difficult to challenge. While there are occasional efforts to push for reform, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's commission investigating new approaches to creating districts, these are usually not successful -- particularly because of a lack of coverage from the media and the effort by incumbents to protect their job security.

Revolving doors: Though Obama implemented some reforms that help separate interest groups from elected officials, those walls remain porous. Staffers and even members move back and forth all the time, creating an environment where the regulated hire the regulators to game the system. Recently, Comcast hired Meredith Attwell Baker of the Federal Communications Commission as a senior vice president. Baker was one of the members of the FCC who voted in favor of Comcast obtaining control of NBC Universal.

Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik said Baker's move was perfectly legal but added: "... her job change is a scandal. The rules she complied with are designed to place a white dusting of powdered sugar over what is deep down a grimy Washington institution -- the revolving door."

The ties are so thick between the regulators and regulated, it is often difficult to distinguish the players on each team.

The point is not to ignore or forgive Wiener for his activities. Rather, we must ask why the much bigger scandals of Capitol Hill, that deal with political power and political influence, don't receive this kind of sustained attention. The stakes with these problems, which should be seen as scandals rather than the normal ways of Washington, are much higher.

Until politicians and reporters are willing to tackle these kinds of institutional scandals with the same kind of fervor and intensity as they are when a legislator sends out pictures of his private parts through Twitter, the political processes that cause Americans so much frustration won't change.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.

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