The rapid unwinding of Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell’s political career has astounded many observers with its raw displays of venality and entitlement, but one self-styled expert says the problem is that Old Dominion’s head honcho should be paid even more.
Josh Barro, politics editor at Business Insider, argued in a column Friday that the American “civic fabric” would be less damaged by scandals like McDonnell’s and the corruption swirling around Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey if elected officials were paid a million dollars a year.
McDonnell, a Republican who grew up in Fairfax County, is under fire for not reporting more than $120,000 a prominent maker of dietary supplements paid to him and his wife. Star Scientific Inc. Chief Executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. also reportedly gave McDonnell’s daughter $10,000 as a wedding gift and paid $15,000 toward her lavish wedding at the governor’s mansion.
Williams also reportedly gave McDonnell a $6,500 Rolex watch.
In addition, McDonnell’s chef has been indicted for embezzlement, while the Commonwealth’s first family has had to repay thousands of dollars for food, booze and other items billed to the executive kitchen. The governor reportedly charged taxpayers for such items as sunscreen and dog vitamins.
This hanky panky comes on top of an annual food budget for the first family that is more than double the average per capita income for Virginia. McDonnell ran up $102,000 in kitchen expenses in 2012, a figure that was exceeded only by his predecessor Tim Kaine, who ate his way through $103,469 in 2009.
According to a 2010 memo from Virginia’s Secretary of Administration’s office, Commonwealth taxpayers are on the hook for a wide array of expenses for the first family. Associated Press, which obtained the memo, listed these as “dry cleaning for the first lady and governor, basic toiletries, cleaning and laundry detergent and provisions for family meals, state functions and events.” Secretary of Administration Lisa Hicks-Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.
In the face of such large living at the taxpayers’ expense, Barro, the son of economist Robert Barro, has one response: Pay McDonnell even more, because, “top politicians are going to feel entitled to live like they’re rich.” In his Business Insider Column, Barro writes:
“The Governor of Virginia makes $175,000 a year, and that is, in some sense, a lot of money… But it’s not nearly enough money to match the lifestyle of the sort of people you become surrounded by when you are a powerful political leader…
“If jobs like Senator and Governor paid about a million dollars a year, these sorts of financial scandals wouldn’t totally go away, but they would decline. McDonnell would have had plenty of money to buy his own Rolex.”
Barro does not produce any evidence for his claim that higher base salaries would reduce the need for pampering of public officials, a premise that does not appear to be supported by history or common sense.
“Josh Barro believes that paying public officials more will reduce the lure of corruption. This certainly isn’t borne out by experience,” Steven Greenhut, vice president of journalism, Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, told The Daily Caller. “The public has enriched non-elected public employees to a degree that’s nearly unbelievable, giving them millionaires’ pensions and CEO-style salaries — especially in the ranks of public-safety officials. Yet abuse and corruption scandals are rife. Greed begets greed. Politicians who are given to corruption will act disreputably regardless of how much money they make in legitimate salaries.”
Barro attempts to pre-empt criticism by saying there are two “main” counterarguments to his novel thesis: that “we want to attract public-spirited people who aren’t in it for the money” and that “high pay would disconnect elected officials from the economic situation of their constituents.” Barro does not address two more obvious and on-point counterarguments.
First, exorbitant base pay for public employees, such as the $787,637 annual salary paid to Robert Rizzo, city manager of the Los Angeles County town of Bell, has historically been associated with higher levels of corruption, not lower levels.
Opponents of public profligacy also argue that tax money, which is extracted from productive citizens by force and with the threat of imprisonment, comes with an added moral burden of parsimony.
McDonnell last year signed a $5.9 billion sales tax hike on Virginians that went into effect on July 1. Residents of Northern Virginia (where this reporter currently resides) have seen the sales tax spike from 5 percent to 6 percent. Barro does not mention the tax increase in his article, nor does he point out the dire quality of life in a state where, for example, the vast homeless population of Virginia Beach prompted the local government in 2011 to consider establishing a permanent tent city.
In a followup tweet, however, Barro found that he had again shown his critics’ arguments to be incorrect:
Getting the usual inane “but they should be PUBLIC SERVANTS” response to that piece.
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) July 12, 2013
Barro did not provide any examples of these inane responses.
According to Greenhut, the mentality on display in Business Insider illustrates the emergence of a public-employee overclass that has effectively become the permanent aristocracy in the United States.
“Paying politicians more just reinforces the idea of the political class as our overlords,” he told TheDC. “Instead of finding new ways to transfer more money from private wallets to the government class, we should be looking for ways to limit the size and scope of government so there’s less reason to waste time trying to buy officials.”
Tours of the Virginia Executive Mansion in Richmond are conducted Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Readers interested in the mansion’s 2013 bicentennial anniversary can also purchase Mary Miley Theobald’s “First House: Two Centuries with Virginia’s First Families,” which, according to Virginia.gov, features more than 200 illustrations and an introduction by bestselling author David Baldacci while telling “the enthralling history of the 200-year legacy of the oldest occupied Governor’s home in the United States.”