Monday, April 12, 2010

Jim DeMint tries to pass the buck on the C Street cover-up

Over the past year there's been a fair amount of coverage on the C Street House, which is owned and operated by the secretive religious group The Family. Several conservative members of Congress live at the house, paying about $950 a month for upscale accommodations just blocks away from the Capitol. According to the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, that's about half the market value of apartments in that area.

It also might break congressional ethics rules. CREW has filed an ethics complaint against several C Street residents, including Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) and Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN), laying out their argument here:
The House and Senate gift rules specifically include “lodging” as a prohibited gift. ... In addition, members may not accept gifts offered to members of Congress because of their official positions. As only members of Congress appear to live in the C Street House, it seems likely that it is because of their positions that they are permitted to live there and are offered below market rent.
It's easy to see why some people would find a problem with that, but Jim DeMint clearly doesn't. When Columbia NBC affiliate WIS-TV asked DeMint about the controversy on Sunday, DeMint seemed barely able to control his amusement:

"There's no subsidy; this comes up every couple of years," DeMint responded with a smirk. "[The Family] is a group that puts on the National Prayer Breakfast that every president speaks to."

Just so we're clear: DeMint claimed his below-market rent is not being subsidized, as evidenced by the fact that The Family holds prayer breakfasts. Uh, what?

But then DeMint said something even more strange:

"I think if they want to look at subsidized housing, they ought to look at the 40 or 50 congressmen that sleep in their offices, and that's totally subsidized by the taxpayers," he continued. "There's no taxpayer dollars involved with where I stay."

The logic in Sen. DeMint's first statement was flawed enough, but this one really doubles down on the absurdity. DeMint is basically saying if congressmen sleep on cots in their offices instead of buying apartments in Washington, taxpayers are subsidizing their housing. Here's why that makes no sense whatsoever: Congressional offices are run with taxpayer money whether someone sleeps in them or not. DeMint's own office is taxpayer-subsidized, and the cost to taxpayers wouldn't change if he decided to put a cot in the corner.

It's also ridiculous that DeMint tried to defend himself by saying there are no taxpayer dollars associated with his apartment at the C Street house. The entire point of the ethics complaint is that the apartment is paid for with private money. Accepting private gifts in the form of subsidized housing violates congressional ethics rules. Wasting taxpayer money isn't the issue here -- Senator DeMint's financial relationship with The Family is.

Even setting aside the complete inanity of DeMint's statement about congressmen sleeping in their offices, DeMint's argument is a textbook red herring. He's using a two-wrongs-make-a-right fallacy designed both to distract the viewer and excuse his own actions. It's a fallacy used all too often these days: Another South Carolina Republican (and former C Street resident), Governor Mark Sanford, attempted to excuse his ethics violations by claiming previous governors had committed similar violations. The State Ethics Commission also saw through his argument, and fined him $74,000. The Vatican frequently uses the fallacy to defend the church's efforts to hide cases of child molestation by priests, a cover-up which goes as high as the Pope himself.

So it's still not clear why Jim DeMint thinks his below-market rent isn't an illegal subsidy, or why his actions should be excused because other congressmen sleep in their offices. What is clear is that DeMint certainly does not want to answer the main question about the C Street cover-up, one frequently asked by Rachel Maddow on her show: Senator, who's paying your rent?


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