Allegations first reported by Politico.com that Representative Tim Bishop’s campaign acted improperly in seeking a cash donation from a constituent for whom the Democratic congressman did a favor have been seized upon by his political opponents. Randy Altschuler, running with Republican and Conservative endorsements, has sought to make the affair the subject of the week, with frequent e-mails to supporters and the news media.
According to the report, a Southampton homeowner sought Mr. Bishop’s help in getting last-minute permits for a fireworks display by the Grucci company for his son’s bar mitzvah celebration. The charge is that while Mr. Bishop or his staff were working on it, the congressman’s daughter, who is also a campaign fund-raiser, sent an e-mail to Eric Semler, the person seeking help, asking for a donation. Mr. Semler made a contribution after Grucci was able to hold the show.
By coincidence, the fireworks company is run by the family of Felix Grucci Jr., a Republican whom Mr. Bishop defeated in 2004. There is sweet irony in the fact that the direct beneficiary of Mr. Bishop’s helping secure the permits was a company run in part by a political adversary. Mr. Grucci gave the Altschuler campaign $500 back in April, his only listed political contribution since 2008.
After the Politico report appeared, Mr. Bishop gave the Semler donation to charity. He also responded in a press release, apparently contradicting Politico’s timing of his campaign’s e-mail. “I did not solicit the donor during the time I was assisting him,” Mr. Bishop said.
The key issue for Mr. Bishop is that House ethics rules prohibit contributions linked to members’ actions. Whether or not the Semlers had intended the $5,000 as a thank-you, it was inappropriate for the Bishop campaign to accept it and wrong to solicit it in the first place. This is a serious lapse, not just for Mr. Bishop, but for Washington as a whole, which is widely perceived as a hopeless morass of quid pro quos and mutual back-scratching.
The millions given each year to House and Senate members, as well as lesser amounts to elected officials all the way down to the town level, are rarely the result of wholly charitable interests. Labor, finance, health care, and agribusiness each hand millions of dollars to officials and challengers, seeking some form of favorable outcome in return. And then there are the millions more in unregulated corporate donations to so-called super PACs. Money is pervasive in American politics, and this is unlikely to change unless public financing of elections becomes law.
If anything, Mr. Bishop’s current problem is another reminder of the lack of adequate walls between the constituent-service side of Congress members’ work and their election-year needs. There is no evidence that the congressman made any promises of action in exchange for a donation. Nonetheless, the solicitation by his campaign never should have happened.