Rep. Jackson effectively vacated his office last June when he began treatment outside of Washington for a “mood disorder,” although his office insisted he would be back. The notion of a triumphant return was scuttled after it was reported the absent congressman was under investigation by the FBI for misusing campaign funds. Nevertheless, Rep. Jackson cruised to victory on November 6 in his heavily Democratic district — and resigned two weeks later. With the writing on the wall well in advance of Election Day, why didn’t the congressman save his constituents time and money by stepping aside? In all likelihood he held the seat to maintain a stronger bargaining position with prosecutors.
While the futures of Rep. Emerson and Sen. DeMint are much brighter, their cavalier treatment of their constituents is remarkably similar.
Rep. Emerson — who won a special election in 1996 to replace her deceased husband — announced she would be stepping down in February to become president and CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). Less than a month earlier, Rep. Emerson was handily reelected to a 10th term in Congress with 72 percent of the vote.
Just three days after Rep. Emerson’s announcement, Sen. DeMint announced he would be stepping down from the Senate in January to serve as president of the Heritage Foundation, a mere two years after being reelected for a second term. Although Sen. DeMint previously had announced he would not seek a third term, it seems four more years as a senator was too great a sacrifice.
Rep. Jackson’s mental health problems might provide some justification for his narcissism, but Rep. Emerson and Sen. DeMint have no such excuses given the lucrative salaries dangled before them. Rep. Emerson’s predecessor was reportedly paid more than $9 million over a six-year period at NRECA. Similarly, Sen. DeMint’s salary surely will at least equal the $1 million a year his immediate predecessor received.
It’s hard to swallow Rep. Emerson’s claim that she can’t remember exactly when NRECA first contacted her about the position, but it seems likely she was orchestrating her exit and golden parachute at the same time she was urging voters to send her back to Congress for another two years. And if Sen. DeMint was so eager to depart, why not announce this well in advance of November’s election?
Besides leaving their constituents in the lurch, the financial costs are significant. After the Illinois State Board of Elections initially estimated it would cost about $5 million to hold the elections for Rep. Jackson’s successor, Illinois state lawmakers quickly approved a bill to align the dates with existing municipal elections as a cost-saving measure. Missouri and South Carolina will be holding special elections, possibly costing Missouri, at least, close to a million dollars.
Serving in Congress is a highly sought honor, not indentured servitude. If members want to depart they are free to do so, but absent significant extenuating circumstances, Americans have a right to expect their elected leaders to serve out their terms.
Sloan is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).